Asbestosis is a serious, long-term breathing disease that permanently scars the lungs and makes it hard to breathe. Asbestosis is caused by breathing in tiny fibres of asbestos, a heat-resistant mineral that used to be common in insulation, vinyl floor tiles, cement, brake linings and other products. People who have had a lot of exposure to asbestos at home or at work can get asbestosis.
Asbestosis is a kind of pneumoconiosis ("pneumoconiosis" or "pneumoconioses" is the general term for diseases caused by breathing in mineral dust). Asbestosis is also called pulmonary fibrosis.
How does asbestos damage the lungs?
When asbestos is cut, ground up or disturbed, tiny asbestos fibres can fly into the air and stay there for a long time. When people inhale (breathe in), tiny asbestos fibres, they can get stuck deep in the lungs. The fibres damage the alveoli, the tiny air sacs at the ends of your breathing passages, deep in your lungs. Normally your alveoli inflate and deflate like a balloon, taking in oxygen and getting rid of waste gas (carbon dioxide). Healthy alveoli are nice and stretchy. Asbestos causes damage and scarring so your alveoli become stiff, not stretchy. When your alveoli are stiff, your lungs have a harder time taking in oxygen, and the muscles in your chest have to work harder to force the air in and out of your lungs.
Who is at risk of getting asbestosis?
Two groups of people are most at risk of asbestosis:
- people who have lived or worked near asbestos over a very long period of time
- people who have lived or worked near a large amount of asbestos over a short period of time
If you smoke and you are exposed to asbestos, you have a much higher risk of getting lung cancer.
Family members of people who work closely with a large amount of asbestos may also be at risk, because the worker may bring home asbestos fibres on his clothes.
These are some of the jobs that put people at risk of asbestosis:
- asbestos and talc miners
- shipyard workers
- construction and demolition workers
- power plant workers
- auto brake mechanics
- workers who make asbestos-containing products such as firebricks, fire-retardant paint and asbestos cement
- firefighters and other emergency rescue workers
- sailors, navy servicemen and women who work and sleep on ships insulated with asbestos
Most people who worked or lived with asbestos do not end up getting asbestosis. But if you have been exposed to asbestos for a long time or in large amounts, it is important to tell your doctor and ask to be examined for signs of asbestos-related lung diseases.
What are the symptoms of asbestosis?
People usually do not notice asbestosis symptoms right away. It can take 20 or 30 years from the time people started working with asbestos to the time they notice the symptoms. By the time people notice symptoms, some permanent damage has been done.
Some asbestosis symptoms are:
- feeling short of breath — at first, people are short of breath when they are exercising or working hard but eventually, people with asbestosis may become short of breath even when they are resting
- finding it hard to exercise or do physical activity (climb stairs, lift heavy boxes)
- a dry cough
- chest pain
Keep in mind that symptoms of many lung diseases are similar. If you have these or other symptoms, see your doctor. Your doctor can give you a complete exam that will help find out what is causing your breathing problems.
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What are some other diseases caused by asbestos?
Asbestos is also linked to the following diseases:
- benign pleural diseases: thickening and hardening of the pleura (the lining that covers the lungs and chest cavity)
- pleural plaques and/or benign pleural effusions (fluid around the lung)
- mesothelioma: a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity — the Canadian Cancer Society explains more about mesothelioma
- other kinds of lung cancer
- cancers of the larynx and digestive system, including cancer of the esophagus (food pipe), stomach and colon
Asbestosis can also lead to the following complications:
- pulmonary hypertension: high blood pressure in the arteries that deliver blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs
- cor pulmonale: failure of the right side of the heart caused by pulmonary hypertension
How is asbestosis diagnosed?
To help make a diagnosis of asbestosis, your doctor will:
- Take a detailed medical history and work history. Your doctor will ask: "How long did you work with asbestos? Did you wear any protective gear like a dust mask? Have any of your co-workers developed asbestosis or another workplace-related sickness?"
- Do a physical examination.
- Test your breathing by pulmonary function testing. Spirometry is a quick, simple breathing test that measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs. For this test, you will be asked to blow fast and hard through a tube attached to a small machine. The machine will show how much air you can push out of your lungs and how fast. Other pulmonary function tests are also usually performed.
- Order a chest X-ray.
- Order a CT (computerized tomography) scan.
How is asbestosis treated?
There is no cure for asbestosis. It may be possible to slow down the progression of symptoms or lower your risk of developing complications.
The main treatments for asbestosis include:
- Staying away from asbestos – stop your exposure.
- Quitting smoking. If you have asbestosis and you smoke, you are at higher risk for more lung damage and for lung cancer. Get help to stop smoking.
- Following an exercise or pulmonary (respiratory) rehabilitation program, under a doctor’s supervision.
- Learning about healthy eating and nutrition, so you can avoid getting the bone disease osteoporosis.
- Washing hands properly. Toreduce risks of getting viral respiratory infections, be sure to wash your hands very carefully using proper hand washing technique.
- Getting vaccinations (shots) against the flu and pneumonia. If you already have a lung disease like asbestosis, getting the flu (influenza) or pneumonia could make you really sick. Your doctor may recommend you get the flu shot and the pneumonia shot (PPV vaccine).
- Using prescribed oxygen. Your doctor may order this if the level of oxygen in your blood is low.
- Draining fluid from your lungs, when needed.
- In some cases, people with asbestosis may get a lung transplant.
What can I expect if I have asbestosis?
It depends. If you or someone you know has asbestosis, it is natural to want to know what to expect. Some cases of asbestosis are mild, some are serious, and some are fatal. It is different for different people — only your doctor can tell you what to expect in your case.
What should I do if I think I have asbestosis, or if I know I was exposed to asbestos?
If you think you have asbestosis, or if you have any other symptoms that worry you, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and your worries. Explain how long you were exposed to asbestos and how much asbestos you lived near or worked with.
If you were exposed to asbestos for a long time or in large amounts but do not have any symptoms, you should also see your doctor for an exam. Not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos will get asbestosis, but it is really important to check if you have any lung diseases from asbestos exposure, especially lung cancer that can be effectively treated if diagnosed early.
What about compensation (money) for people who got asbestosis from their time in the Navy or other military service?
If you were exposed to asbestos in the Navy or the military, and you have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease like asbestosis, you may be entitled to compensation (money) from Veterans Affairs Canada. Read about compensation for veterans exposed to asbestos on the Veterans Affairs Canada website.
If you believe you have a sickness caused by exposure to asbestos when you were in the Army or the Navy, call Veterans Affairs Canada at 1-866-522-2122. Apply for compensation as soon as possible. Veteran’s Affairs only compensates people from the time they make their claim, not from the time they first got sick, so it is important to make your claim as soon as possible.
If you were exposed to asbestos on the job, contact your local worker’s compensation board. Here is a list of the worker’s compensation agencies across Canada.
How to prevent asbestosis
If you work in a job that still uses asbestos (shipbuilding, brake installation, building demolition, etc.), be sure to wear all the protective gear you need and follow safety procedures to reduce your risk of exposure. If you do not think your employer is doing enough to protect you from asbestos, contact your occupational health agency or The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), a national government-funded agency.
If you are doing renovation projects in a home built before the 1970s, you may find asbestos in the building insulation, the insulation for hot-water and steam pipes, the soundproofing and decorative material on walls and ceilings, the ironing board pads, the textured paint, the roofing and siding shingles, and the vinyl floor tiles. It is usually safe to keep these products in place, as long as they are not damaged or falling apart. If the material is damaged, do not remove it yourself- removing or disturbing the asbestos will release the asbestos fibres into the air. Instead, call a professional to do the removal. Look up "asbestos abatement /removal" in the phone book to find a professional in your area.
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