Pleural Plaques

Hearing the term "pleural plaques" can conjure images of a frightful disease. Plaque deposits in coronary arteries are the leading cause of myocardial infarctions or sudden, massive and fatal heart attacks. But, there’s no need to panic when hearing the word pleural attached to "plaque." Almost all diagnosed cases of people living with pleural plaques are harmless. Pleural plaques are a natural form of collagen that turn calcified over time. They reside in the parietal pleura or visceral pleura, or the thoracic cavity lining and the covering of the lungs, respectively.

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Pleural plaques are a direct result of asbestos exposure. While this form of fibrous deposit is benign on its own, pleural plaques can be a leading indicator of a severe disease like asbestosis, bronchial carcinoma or malignant mesothelioma. Physicians who spot pleural plaques automatically investigate for other diseases caused by asbestos exposure that could be life-threatening.

Pleural plaques are not malignant tumors. They never will become anything more than benign calcifications that often disappear on their own. Pleural plaques form as part of a natural immune system response to foreign body invasions such as asbestos fibers. That could be from directly inhaling or ingesting asbestos particles. Pleural plaques can also form as part of a complex transfer of asbestos fibers throughout the lymphatic system.

How Pleural Plaques Form

Collagen is the body’s most abundant protein. This amino acid composes one-third of the body’s mass. As a hard and insoluble fibrous composite, collagen makes up soft tissues like ligaments, tendons and skin. It also supports mass in bones, blood and dentin. Further, collagen serves to boost the immune system in trouble spots and often forms to protect membranes like the pleura if they are under attack.

Collagen deposits start as soft coverings on damaged tissue. As time progresses, collagen build-ups harden. They calcify or turn into what’s called plaque. These are the body’s natural helpers rather than hinderers. Asbestos particles act as irritants to the pleura and plaque deposits serve to protect damaged tissue. They have no intention of causing harm, but often pleural plaques are ineffective in the long run. Plaque deposits are a warning that a severe ailment is about to develop.

As an individual inhales asbestos fibers, they pass through the upper and lower respiratory areas. Tiny particles embed into lung tissue along the path and create micro-abrasions. This process triggers a release of collagen along building scar tissue which is a natural response to damaged areas. Asbestos fibers are silicate minerals that can’t be broken down and decomposed into the body, nor can they be expelled by exhaling. Asbestos permanently stays inside the thoracic cavity and often travels to other body parts like the circulatory, digestive and renal systems.

Detecting and Diagnosing Pleural Plaques

Like all asbestos-related health issues, the build-up of pleural plaques has a lengthy latency period. Plaque can form a decade or more after initial exposure to asbestos. These deposits sometimes disappear after a short time, or they can remain in the pleural tissues forever. Pleural plaques vary in number, size and location. There is no observed consistency in pleural plaques from patient to patient.

This irregularity creates confusion for medical professionals attempting to read imagery. Pleural plaques aren’t always asbestos-related. They can form after thoracic trauma injury or from previous respiratory ailments like tuberculosis and bronchitis. X-Rays are a primary means of detecting pleural plaques. Doctors usually discover or identify it when attempting to diagnose other conditions that manifest with chest discomfort symptoms.

Pleural plaques are an asymptomatic condition. Rarely are there any direct calcified collagen deposit symptoms unless the deposits are so large that they interfere with the pleural diaphragm and create irregular breathing. Chest pain usually accompanies that condition and almost always indicates other health issues.

Today, computed tomography (CT) scans are the most effective method of detecting and diagnosing pleural plaques. CT scans build a cross-sectional or 3D-like model of the pleural cavity. They paint a complete picture of the body’s inside without having to do invasive surgery. If a doctor identifies pleural plaques with no other issue, no treatment is necessary, as the condition is harmless.

Medical reports in the National Cancer Institute Journal show a clear asbestos exposure link on latency periods for pleural plaques. Patients experiencing less than ten years of asbestos exposure had a low incidence of developing pleural plaques. Approximately 7% of exposed people showed any sign of calcified collagen. Those figures drastically rose proportionately to the duration of exposure. 50% of people with 40 years of exposure time had identifiable plaque deposits.

Pleural Plaques in Relation to Asbestos Type

There doesn’t seem to be any particular relationship between the type of asbestos exposure experienced and the rate of developing pleural plaques. While there’s no doubt asbestos exposure is the leading cause of pleural plaques, both asbestos groups are equally capable of bringing on this situation. This issue is not like other asbestos-exposure issues where one fiber classification is known to be far more dangerous than the other.

One can classify asbestos fibers according to their physical characteristics. Serpentine asbestos particles like chrysotile fibers are twisted and soft while amphibole asbestos fibers microscopically appear as hard crystals with needle-like spikes. The amphibole group includes crocidolite fibers which are considered the most deadly as well as amosite, transite, actinolite and anthophyllite fibers.

Chrysotile asbestos fibers made up approximately 90% of all asbestos consumed in the United States. That encompassed a period from the early 1900s to the mid-1980s when government regulators banned all domestic asbestos production. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) found overwhelming proof that asbestos was a toxic human carcinogen and listed asbestos as a dangerous substance.

Fortunately, many of the millions of Americans exposed to asbestos materials developed little more than pleural plaques. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands became seriously ill after prolonged asbestos exposure and died of diseases like lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. And many Americans currently live with the possibility of developing deadly diseases caused by asbestos exposure.

Compensation and Legal Action Regarding Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques aren’t considering a debilitating or dangerous disorder. No one has ever died directly from pleural plaques, but they certainly have from diseases that calcified collagen build-ups indicate. The most common ailment is asbestosis followed by lung cancer. Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly tumor network affecting the lung lining or what’s medically known as the mesothelium.

Taking legal action against negligent asbestos product manufacturers and producers for pleural plaques only might be unsuccessful. No serious injury occurs strictly from pleural plaques. However, pleural plaques are a leading indicator of deadly asbestos-related diseases, and the condition forms part of an overall medical case.

Many victims of asbestos-related diseases have successfully sued companies responsible for jeopardizing their health. Compensation is available to cover medical expenses, lost income and personal injury damages. Families of asbestos-exposure victims can claim on members’ behalf. They can also file lawsuits in wrongful death cases.

Author:Stephanie Kidd
Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd is the Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network and 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: May 29, 2019

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