Exposure to asbestos has been linked predominantly to three deadly diseases, characterized by extended latency periods [Asbestos related disease].
An irreversible lung condition, asbestosis results from the inhalation of asbestos fibers over an extended period and progresses even after exposure to asbestos ceases. In cases of asbestosis, scar tissue stiffens and distorts the lungs, making breathing progressively more difficult; as the blood supply to the lungs becomes impaired, the heart is put under strain by the reduced efficiency of the lungs. The thickening of the alveoli, the air sacs, caused by the action of the asbestos fibers reduces the uptake of oxygen and the discharge of carbon dioxide.
The higher the exposure, the greater the chances of developing asbestosis and the shorter the time it takes. Asbestosis tends to be linked to heavy occupational exposure although cases of asbestosis among those not occupationally exposed, such as residents who lived near asbestos-using factories, have been known [What Price the Truth?, Asbestosis in India, Victory for Brazil's Asbestos Victims].
Once considered to be a rare tumor, mesothelioma has become increasingly more common. It is a cancer that usually arises on the outer surface of the lung (pleura), but can also occur in the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) and on rare occasions elsewhere [Mesothelioma UK].
There is a consensus that the commonest causal agent of mesothelioma is asbestos. Mesothelioma may occur in the absence of asbestosis and can be associated with relatively low exposures to asbestos. It accounts for the majority of victims who contract an asbestos-related disease through environmental exposure and is a notoriously aggressive cancer with no known cure [Asbestos Massacre at Japanese Factories, Professional Bakers Contract Asbestos Disease, New Zealand: Asbestos Epidemic, A Sad Legacy, Tragic Consequences of Asbestos Exposure].
Asbestos-related lung cancer (bronchial carcinoma)
This asbestos disease can result from occupational or environmental asbestos exposure; it is the predominant malignancy contracted by the asbestos-exposed. There is a powerful synergistic interaction between asbestos exposure and cigarette smoking. If you set the lung cancer risk as 1 for a non-smoker with no occupational asbestos exposure, the risk for an asbestos worker who did not smoke is 5 times, for a smoker with no asbestos exposure it is 10 times and for a smoker who worked with asbestos it is 55 times the background level New Research Confirms Hazards of Asbestos-Cement, Attack on Helsinki Criteria, Australia Bans Asbestos, Major Research Initiative in Australia].
Other diseases which are linked to asbestos exposure include:
Asbestos defendants, including national governments, contend that pleural plaques are a symptomless condition; plaques sufferers know otherwise [We Will Never Go Away!]. New research has confirmed the fact that plaques can cause intractible pain [Literature Review].
In recent years, a consensus has emerged amongst international agencies tasked with protecting public and occupational health that exposure to all types of asbestos can cause the diseases listed above. In March 2009, the list of asbestos-related diseases was extended to include cancers of the larynx and ovary by experts taking part in a high-level IARC meeting in France [Asbestos Policies of Major International Agencies, Confirmation of Chrysotile Hazard].
Updated February, 2010