Asbestosis: the silent killer

The serious asbestos-related illness can lead to fatal lung cancer and mesothelioma

Asbestos is a fibrous insulating material used in buildings across the UK, especially in schools and colleges built between the 1950’s and early 1980’s in Local Authority building initiatives which aimed to construct public buildings quickly and efficiently. But recent discoveries have revealed that breathing in asbestos fibres released when asbestos containing walls, ceiling and floor tiles and insulation are damaged can kill.

What is asbestosis?

The dust released from damaged asbestos-containing building materials contains minute asbestos fibres which cause damage to the lungs on inhalation. The asbestosis which develops as a result of the exposure is an incurable, chronic (long-term) condition causing shortness of breath and often compromising the individual’s health and significantly shortening their life. Asbestosis is thought to have caused 134 deaths in the UK in 2005 alone (NHS Choices, 2008) – but the story doesn’t end there. The heightened risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma , cancer of the body’s organ membranes, means that asbestosis becomes, in many cases, fatal.

The symptoms of asbestosis

Key to the recent pressing medical and political concerns about asbestos in UK schools and public buildings is the fact that the symptoms of asbestosis can remain hidden for up to 20 years after initial exposure, leaving it difficult to fully predict the damage any amount of asbestos exposure could present – particularly for children, whose increased susceptibility to asbestosis makes it a worrying concern.

Asbestosis symptoms could occur in several ways, including

  • shortness of breath, which initially presents after exercise, but later after resting, too
  • coughing
  • experiencing chest pain

Less rarely, finger clubbing might also occur. This describes a symptom where fluid builds up in the tissues of the fingers, leading them to swell, redden and change shape.

A closer look at asbestosis

The harmful asbestos fibres breathed in during exposure to the fine dust released from damaged asbestos panels and asbestos-containing materials are such that the body’s normal natural defences aren’t able to tackle them. In most situations, foreign bodies like dust or metal breathed in through the nose and mouth are broken down by macrophages which prevent the unknown particles reaching your lungs.

But asbestos fibres are too tough for the macrophages to break down. In the fight to break down the fibres, macrophages release substances damaging to the asbestos fibres. But unfortunately, this substance also causes damage to the alveoli, the minute air sacs in the lungs.

It’s the damaged alveoli which eventually lead the asbestosis-sufferer to become breathless and increase their risk of cancer. The job of alveoli is to transfer the oxygen we breathe in through the lungs into the bloodstream, and to filter carbon dioxide out of the blood to be exhaled. But fibrosis, the scarring which affects the alveoli when asbestos fibres are breathed in over a long period of time, reduces the alveoli’s ability to filter oxygen and carbon dioxide, leading to shortness of breath.

Lungs affected by asbestosis in this way can be heard to make a distinct crackling noise through a stethoscope. This can often be the first step towards a diagnosis, with confirmation from spirometer tests, which monitor the effectiveness of your lungs in their processing of oxygen and carbon dioxide, X-rays and CT scans, both of which can distinguish lung abnormalities due to asbestosis in the earliest stages.

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