Asbestos poses very serious health risks to those who work alongside it. Once exposed, you’re left with the possibility of developing incurable and life-threatening illnesses. Read through this article for more information on these illnesses in order to understand why it’s vitally important that you ensure all necessary precautions are taken when working with asbestos.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is dangerous.

When you inhale asbestos your body’s defences detect a foreign body and attempt to remove it. However, asbestos cannot be broken down, resulting in the defensive chemicals your body’s releasing inadvertently damaging your lungs. Over time this causes scarring.

Symptoms develop around 15 – 60 years after exposure. Mitigating factors for this include:

  1. The amount of asbestos you’re exposed to.
  2. The type of asbestos you’re exposed to – blue asbestos is the most damaging, followed by brown asbestos and white asbestos.
  3. The individual’s health, particularly lung health – smokers and those with lung disease will be more negatively affected.

Asbestos is responsible for over 4500 deaths every year.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

It’s been estimated that 3 – 8% of lung cancer cases are caused by asbestos exposure.

The probability of developing asbestos-related lung cancer will depend on what kind / for how long / what quantity you’re exposed to.

Onset:  20 – 30 years.

Symptoms:  Breathlessness, chronic cough, chest pain, coughing up blood, fatigue and weight loss.

Treatment:  A combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.

Prognosis:  It’s extremely important that you get an early diagnosis.
Lung cancer survival rates are poor, with only 15% of patients surviving 5 years after diagnosis.


Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that results from lung tissue scarring. People who develop asbestosis have had intense and/or long-term exposure to asbestos.

Onset:  15+ years.

Symptoms:  Shortness of Breath, coughing.

Treatment:  Oxygen therapy can significantly improve quality of life amongst sufferers.

Prognosis:  This is a progressive disease that will continue to get worse.

Malignant mesothelioma

This is an aggressive and incurable tumour, most commonly caused by exposure to asbestos.

There’s no official link between smoking and mesothelioma, but smoking does increase your risk of developing other asbestos-related cancers.

Onset:  20 – 50 years.

Symptoms:  Chronic chest pain, cough, shortness of breath and weight loss.

Treatment:  Surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Prognosis:  Mesothelioma has a poor prognosis – most patients die within a year of diagnosis.

Non-malignant asbestos-related pleural diseases

The pleura (the outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall) is more prone to asbestos damage, and therefore complications develop from lower doses of asbestos.

The main pleural diseases are:

  1. Benign pleural effusions

    This involves a build-up of fluid in your chest cavity.

    :  Usually within 10 years of exposure.

    :  Can be asymptomatic, or cause breathlessness, fever and pain.

    :  1) History of asbestos exposure. 2) Radiology of thoracentesis. 3) No alternative cause. 4) No malignant tumour developing within 3 years.

    :  Condition lasts 3 – 4 months then subsides. However, it can progress to DPT. 
  2. Diffuse pleural thickening (DPT)

    DPT accounts for 22% of all asbestos-related diseases. It also involves the chest cavity filling with fluid, except across a larger chest area.Onset: 20 – 40 years.

    Symptoms:  Breathlessness and chest pain.

    Diagnosis:  Chest Radiography, or CT scan for early detection.

    Options are limited but investigations should still be done to rule out more sinister causes.

    Prognosis:  Most patients are only mildly impaired by DPT.


  3. Pleural plaques

    This is the most common asbestos complication, affecting up to 58% of asbestos-exposed workers. Pleural plaques are areas of thickening in the pleura.Onset:  30+ years.

    Symptoms:  Typically asymptomatic.

    Diagnosis:  Chest x-ray or chest CT scan.

    Prognosis:  Good – pleural plaques on their own aren’t malignant.

Avoid developing any of these serious and permanent complications by following the correct safety procedures, wearing the correct safety equipment and carrying out appropriate risk assessments. Furthermore, make sure your GP is aware of and includes in your medical notes any potential incidents of exposure to asbestos, making it easier for them to detect the development of related illnesses in the future.