What does asbestos do to the lungs?

Asbestos fibers irritate and heal lung tissue, causing the lungs to stiffen. This makes it difficult to breathe.

What does asbestos do to the lungs?

Asbestos fibers irritate and heal lung tissue, causing the lungs to stiffen. This makes it difficult to breathe. As asbestosis progresses, more and more lung tissue becomes scarred. Over time, lung tissue becomes so stiff that it cannot contract or expand normally.

Asbestosis is one of many interstitial lung diseases that cause inflammation and scarring in the lungs. Inhaled asbestos fibers can cause scar tissue, known as pulmonary fibrosis, to form inside the lungs. When dust from sources such as asbestos causes this type of disease, it is known as pneumoconiosis or occupational lung disease. Breathing in asbestos fibers increases the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the thin lining that surrounds the lungs and other organs.

Cigarette smoking, combined with exposure to asbestos, increases the chances of developing lung cancer. When dust is aspirated, asbestos fibers enter the lungs and can damage them gradually over time. If you breathe in asbestos fibers, they can lodge inside your lungs. This can cause scarring and thickening around the air sacs, which means it's harder for oxygen to reach the bloodstream.

This scarring causes the lungs to “shrink” and “harden.” In turn, this causes you to have difficulty breathing, since your lungs cannot hold as much air as before. At first, this can only happen after you have been physically active, but it can eventually become a more constant problem. The main difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma is that mesothelioma is cancer and asbestosis is not cancer. Asbestosis is not a cancerous disease, but it does indicate that a person has been exposed to enough asbestos to be at risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer or pleural mesothelioma cancer.

However, when a building containing asbestos is renovated or demolished, or if asbestos is damaged or altered, tiny asbestos fibers may be released into the air. Today, you are likely to come into contact with asbestos only if your work puts you at risk of damaging asbestos left in older buildings. People who work with or near asbestos (miners, asbestos abatement workers, custody and maintenance workers, and isolation workers) are at greater risk of exposure than the general public. Asbestos fibers are easily inhaled, and if the fibers are inhaled over long periods of time, the risk of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma increases.

Asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma begin to develop at least 20 years after exposure to asbestos. Breathing asbestos can cause small asbestos fibers to get stuck in the lungs and irritate lung tissues. If you suspect asbestos is present, hire a licensed asbestos abatement company to conduct tests and carry out any necessary removal projects. Workers most likely to experience this type of exposure include insulators that installed aerosol asbestos insulation, miners and asbestos millers.

But if the material containing asbestos is damaged, it can release a fine dust containing asbestos fibers. Smoking increases the risk of asbestos-related health problems because it irritates the lung passages, making it difficult for the lungs to remove asbestos fibers.

Jeannie Kotzur
Jeannie Kotzur

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