What is Asbestosis?
Inhaled asbestos fibers lodge in the inner lung tissue. They attach like Velcro to the alveoli or tiny air sacs, and it is impossible to exhale them.
The body’s immune system can’t break down or decompose asbestos fibers as it does with organic and biological impurities. These microscopic asbestos particles cover the lung interior and stay permanently in place. The body’s natural recourse is to form scar tissue over the trapped asbestos fibers.
Eventually, this mass of scar tissue thickens and hardens. It causes the lungs to stiffen, then normal expansion and contraction of the lungs becomes difficult or impossible.
Asbestosis doesn’t metastasize or spread like cancer tumors. Rather, the scar tissue makes breathing so difficult that the asbestosis victim suffocates. This disease also stresses other body functions and can send the patient into multiple organ failures or cardiac arrest.
Asbestosis and Asbestos Exposure History
Most people suffering from asbestosis were exposed to asbestos-containing materials (ACM) before the mid-1980s.
That’s when federal regulatory authorities like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) collectively worked to have ACM banned in America.
By then, it was too late for asbestosis victims. Today, many still suffer from asbestosis and eventually die from associated complications.
The history of asbestos in the United States begins with industry. Asbestos was widely used in all types of American construction projects. One of the biggest asbestos consumers was the shipbuilding industry.
The highest number of recorded asbestosis cases occurred in shipbuilding workers as well as the sailors who lived and operated vessels loaded with ACM. The U.S. Navy reported more asbestosis disease incidents per working capita than any other military or civilian segment.
Construction workers also had an extremely high rate of asbestosis. They worked with all sorts of ACM daily while building homes, schools, offices and factories. Practically every construction material made between 1920 and 1980 contained some amount of asbestos fibers. Some materials had as low as 1 percent asbestos while others were nearly pure asbestos fibers.
Asbestos was considered a miracle building material.
Asbestos was prized for being:
- Blendable with other materials
- Chemically inert
By the 1930s, health warnings about asbestos exposure were well known. Manufacturers and government officials received notice from the medical community that prolonged asbestos exposure caused benign respiratory diseases like asbestosis, pleural plaques and pleural effusion.
They also had strong evidence asbestos exposure was the sole cause of malignant mesothelioma and a contributor to about 20 percent of deadly lung cancer tumors.
Health warnings were underestimated, unheeded and ignored by many manufacturers. They put profits before people and hid this damning information.
So did many employers. That included the United States federal government, who feared that facts about asbestos-related health risks would hamper the World War II shipbuilding effort.
Sadly, millions of Americans suffered long periods of inhaling deadly asbestos fibers and unknowingly opened their lungs to asbestosis.
Types of Asbestos Fibers
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring silicate mineral. It is found worldwide and close to the earth’s surface making it easy and economical to mine. Asbestos has two distinct groups based on their fiber composition. One is the serpentine class. The other is amphibole asbestos fibers that contain five different subtypes.
Chrysotile fibers are the only type of serpentine asbestos.
When microscopically viewed, chrysotile or white asbestos fibers appear:
- Serpent shaped
Approximately 90 percent of all asbestos used in American materials were chrysotile fibers. Therefore, due to their abundance, chrysotile asbestos was responsible for the vast majority of asbestosis cases.
The shape and softness of the chrysotile type also account for why most asbestos-caused diseases are benign. They didn’t do as much damage as amphibole fibers.
Amphibole class fibers look hard and spiky under a microscope. Each fiber particle contains needle-like spears that cut into lung tissue and traveled to the outer lining which is called the mesothelium. Some amphibole-class fibers remained in the tissue and contributed to scar tissue build-up resulting in asbestosis.
Amphibole asbestos contains five different subtypes which are:
Crocidolite asbestos is considered the most dangerous asbestos type, but the U.S. government considers all types of asbestos dangerous.
Asbestosis Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Asbestosis is a lung disease directly related to asbestos exposure. It’s confined to the lungs whereas other asbestos diseases affect multiple organs like the heart, kidneys, intestinal tract, ovaries, and testicles.
Asbestosis remains benign in the lungs, but it’s a devastating disease. The worst thing about asbestosis is the pain and discomfort of the symptoms present.
Asbestosis symptoms include:
- Chest pain and shortness of breath
- Chronic fatigue and lack of oxygenated blood
- Dry and persistent coughing
- Loss of appetite resulting in weight loss
- Swelling of fingertips known as clubbing
Treating asbestosis is nearly impossible—short of a lung transplant. This asbestos-related disease is not curable. Its only treatment is to manage the symptoms and make the patient comfortable.
Oxygen therapy is the main auxiliary treatment. Many asbestosis patients find themselves permanently attached to an oxygen bottle and being supported by pain-relieving medications.
Smoking is the worst thing an asbestosis patient can do. Studies conclusively show that smokers were at least 50 times more likely to develop asbestosis than non-smokers.
Even when exposed to the same amount, duration, and asbestos fiber type, smokers far outnumbered tobacco sustainers in developing asbestosis. Continued smoking severely increased asbestosis advancement.
Physicians who recognize the symptoms and isolate asbestosis find that it is easy to tell the difference between this lung disease from other pulmonary disorders like emphysema, bronchitis and COPD. Discussing a history of asbestos exposure is a primary diagnostic step.
A diagnosis is confirmed by chest X-rays, biopsies and blood work to confirm this disease so management plans can begin. Cancer intervention treatments like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy don’t work with asbestosis.
Compensation for Asbestosis Victims
Sufferers who developed asbestosis through workplace asbestos exposure can claim compensation from negligent employers and manufacturers of asbestos-containing materials. Strong cases proving negligence have court precedents, and legal counsel should be sought to pursue compensation claims.
Many jurisdictions have statutory time limits on filing an action against those who negligently caused workers to suffer from asbestosis. The clock starts from the time asbestosis is conclusively diagnosed by a medical practitioner, not from the time a worker was last exposed to asbestos-containing materials.
Compensation payments include settlements for medical expenses, lost income and punitive damages for personal injury. Families of asbestosis patients may claim on their behalf. They can also file lawsuits in wrongful death cases.