Asbestos Diseases

Asbestos is one of the most dangerous substances known to human health. Prolonged asbestos exposure is responsible for over a dozen different diseases. Some diseases are mild and recoverable. Other asbestos diseases are deadly. Latency periods for developing asbestos diseases take 10-50 years after exposure. Meanwhile, most affected people aren’t aware their health is in serious jeopardy.

Get a Free Case Review

Asbestos Exposure and Health Hazards

For 8 decades from the 1920s to the 1980s, asbestos was one of the most common materials used in America.

Asbestos was prominent in the shipbuilding industry due to its natural fire resistance, sound absorption and insulation properties. Asbestos-containing materials found their place in construction products. Most American buildings constructed during that period contained asbestos fibers. And asbestos was used in everyday household commodities like cookware and even toothpaste.

Workers across the nation were exposed daily to airborne asbestos fibers that entered their lungs and went on to affect other organs.

Hundreds of thousands of people have developed diseases directly caused by working with or around asbestos-containing materials (ACM). Many suffered horrible respiratory, cardiac and abdominal ailments. Sadly, some paid the ultimate price for asbestos exposure and most had no idea just how dangerous asbestos was.

Asbestos Disease Groups

There are 2 asbestos disease groups.

  1. The first is non-life threatening diseases like benign tumors. These are abnormal cell growths that don’t metastasize or spread to affect other body parts. These diseases are controllable. However, they’re rarely curable.
  2. The second group is the diseases that eventually turn fatal. These cancers can be temporarily managed but have no known cure, such as mesothelioma.
Did You Know?

Mesothelioma Justice Network Brief

It’s important to know that not everyone exposed to asbestos fibers will develop a benign or malignant tumor or some other asbestos-related disease. Many factors play into a person’s risk of disease. Primarily, it depends on the dose or amount of asbestos they were exposed to, the duration or length of time they had exposure and the specific form of asbestos fibers.


Additionally, the chance or developing an asbestos-caused disease depends on their circumstances. Some are more genetically predisposed to developing a disease. Others have lifestyle issues that severely increase risk. Smoking tops that list with figures quoting that smokers have at least 50 times more risk of developing an asbestos-related lung disease after exposure than non-smokers.

Benign Asbestos-Related Diseases

The medical definition of “benign” means it’s the opposite of malignant. That is, benign tumors or diseases aren’t cancerous. But, that doesn’t mean they’re not harmful to overall health and not cause immense discomfort and functional disability.

These are the most common benign diseases caused by asbestos exposure:


Asbestosis, or diffused pulmonary fibrosis, is a condition where the inner lung tissue gets severely scarred after prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers. It is the most common of all asbestos-related diseases. Asbestosis is not a specific tumor, but rather an entire scar covering or blanket inside the lungs.

When tiny asbestos fibers impale the lung surface, the body’s immune system naturally forms scars in an attempt to heal these foreign invaders. Asbestosis is not fatal like cancerous tumors, however, respiratory or cardiac failure can occur after long periods of scar tissue build-up.

Pleural Plaques

Pleural is a general term referring to the lungs or respiratory system. Plaque is a calcified form of collagen (the body’s most common protein). When a foreign substance — such as asbestos fibers — enter a person’s body, a natural immune response may take place and cause pleural plaques to accumulate.

Pleural plaques occur when the membranes of the lungs and the inside of the ribcage thicken and there is a build-up of calcified collagen (plaque). Pleural plaques are isolated to individual spots. They are not particularly dangerous and may disappear in short-duration exposure incidents.

In rare cases, pleural plaques become widespread and thick. This usually indicates a more serious asbestos-related pleural disease, such as some form of cancer.

Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion is not a cancer or disease, but rather an excess fluid build-up in the lungs. Pleural effusions occur between pleural layers, such as between the lung tissue and the mesothelium (outer layer of the lungs).

Pleural effusions are sometimes a symptom of mesothelioma, and this fluid build-up can either dissipate or be surgically drained.

Other Benign Asbestos-Related Diseases

Several other benign diseases and conditions are associated with asbestos exposure, although they’re not common. Diffuse pleural thickening is a thickening of tissue between the lung layers. Rounded atelectasis, also called folded lung, is a condition where a lung collapses or deflates.

There is even a disease known as clubbed fingers where fingertips become box-like. Half of the asbestosis sufferers develop clubbed fingers.

Malignant Asbestos-Related Diseases

Malignant (cancerous) asbestos diseases are serious issues. Cancers caused by asbestos exposure have limited prognosis for long-term survival. The best hope for dealing with cancer is catching it early and taking immediate action to remove or destroy the tumors.

Unfortunately, malignant asbestos diseases take such a long time for the symptoms to present that usually, the disease has advanced to a later stage.

Exactly how asbestos causes cancer cells is a phenomenon not fully understood by medical science. There is overwhelming proof they do, though. Asbestos particles are mineral-based. They can’t be broken down by the immune system as organic and biological impurities can be.

Asbestos scarring in a lung or other organ tissue turns cancerous because healthy cells become damaged and their DNA changes. These cells rapidly multiply rather than die and replace themselves. In the process, these rogue cells damage other organs and shut them down, killing the host.

Malignant tumor cells spread or metastasize to other areas. Often, they invade a neighboring organ or travel through the lymphatic system to remote locations. Asbestos-caused cancers fall in a unique category where malignancies follow long latency periods before the disease breaks loose.

These are the types of malignant asbestos-related diseases:

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is one of the most common, and among the most deadly, forms of human diseases. Carcinogens like tobacco smoke, radon and heavy metals are the most likely contributors to lung cancer. However, asbestos exposure is responsible for an estimated 20% of lung cancer cases.

Lung cancer tumors form in the inner pleural tissue. They can be single entities or series of multiple tumors. Left unchecked, lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure is ultimately fatal. The only intervention is surgical removal or destroying the tumors with radiation, chemotherapy or multimodal attacks.

Mesothelioma Cancer

Inhaled asbestos fibers pass through the soft, inner pleural tissue and travel outward to the tough and durable lung lining called the mesothelium. They stay trapped while the body produces scar tissue and wait for decades until triggered into malignant tumors.

Mesothelioma cancer isn’t localized. It is a network of tumors encompassing the entire mesothelium and is almost indistinguishable to tell where the healthy and infected tissue boundary lies. This issue makes treating malignant mesothelioma nearly impossible.

Mesothelioma affects the lungs, heart, abdomen and, in rare cases, the testicle lining.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer accounts for only 3% of female cancer cases, but it’s the most deadly.  Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other form of women’s’ reproductive cancers.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirms asbestos exposure is a leading cause of this terrible malignant disease.

Laryngeal Cancer

This malignant disease is rare but highly-attributed to asbestos exposure. Inhaled asbestos fibers become trapped in the larynx or voice box. Like in other organs, scar tissue forms and eventually turns into a tumor. Surgery is the prime treatment followed by chemo and radiation.

Prognosis for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Benign asbestos diseases are not generally fatal unless left untreated or only discovered late in their advancement stage. Asbestosis is the leading cause of death in all asbestos-related diseases because it’s the most common. It takes far longer for asbestosis to progress as a disease than cancer.

Asbestos-caused cancers can be sudden and rapid. Many people with cancer have little suspicion that they’re sick until symptoms advance aggressively. Often, these tumors have reached stage 3 or 4 before symptoms show. By then the prognosis is poor, with a median life expectancy of 12 months for most patients.

The key to handling every asbestos-caused disease is early detection and intervention. Education is one of the best detection tools going. Anyone who has experienced significant asbestos exposure should discuss this with their doctor, regardless if symptoms are absent. Simple physical exams, X-rays and blood work can potentially spot asbestos diseases so treatment can start.

Compensation for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Anyone who develops a disease related to workplace asbestos exposure should contact legal counsel and discuss compensation options. Lung cancer and mesothelioma patients are eligible for payments to cover personal injury damages, medical costs and income loss.

Compensation may be available for disease sufferers due to negligent asbestos product manufacturers. Families may claim on behalf of members and can file lawsuits in wrongful death cases.

For more information on seeking justice for asbestos-related disease, contact our Justice Support Team today.

Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: January 23, 2020

View 9 Sources
  1. World Health Organization, “Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
  2. Health & Safety Executive, "Asbestos-Related Diseases" Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
  3. International Commission on Health, “Global Asbestos Ban and the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
  4. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
  5. U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos Risks” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Health Effects from Exposure to Asbestos” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
  7. National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Investigating Cancer Risks Related to Asbestos and Other Occupational Carcinogens” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
  8. American Cancer Society, “Asbestos and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from: Accessed on 16 December 2017
  9. National Institute of Health, “Early Diagnosis of Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma in Prior Asbestos Workers” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December 2017
Back to Top