Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis (which in simple terms means lung scarring). As the name suggests, asbestosis is a disease linked with asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance which was used extensively in the construction industry prior to the year 2000 due to its heat and fire resistant properties. It is made up of long, thin fibres which were eventually found to be highly dangerous when released. They are released when materials that contain asbestos are disturbed, e.g. in maintenance, refurbishment, demolition or installation work. Inhalation of asbestos can lead to the development of asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural diseases later in life. Therefore, careful management of any buildings containing asbestos is a high priority.
Signs and Symptoms of Asbestosis
In the early stages of asbestosis sufferers tend to notice symptoms after physical activity, however, as it progresses these signs and symptoms can become a constant struggle. The main symptom of asbestosis is shortness of breath. This can be accompanied by:
• A persistent cough
• Wheezing (whistling or rattling noises when breathing)
• Extreme tiredness
• Chest or shoulder pain
• Chest tightness
• Clubbed (swollen) fingertips – in the late stages
What Causes Asbestosis?
Asbestos is made up of many long, thin fibres which can be inhaled deep into our lungs when asbestos containing materials are disturbed. Once inhaled, the fibres embed into the lining of our lungs where our bodies and immune system cannot remove them. Here, they cause irritation and long term inflammation which results in scarring of lung tissue. The scarred lung tissue shrinks and hardens, meaning it cannot hold as much air as before. Scarring around the lung’s tiny air sacs results in shortness of breath which gets progressively worse as the disease advances. Asbestosis typically occurs around 20-30 years after inhaling a substantial quantity of asbestos, over a period of years.
Asbestosis Outlook and Treatment
The prognosis for people with asbestosis is quite poor as it is a progressive disease with no treatments available to halt or even slow this progression. The damage is irreversible, however symptom management can help to provide sufferers with a better quality of life. Many people living with asbestosis suffer with breathlessness. This debilitating symptom can be alleviated through pulmonary rehabilitation, which involves exercises and education for those living with lung conditions. Additionally, if the scarring is stopping enough oxygen getting into a patient’s blood, oxygen therapy can be used to boost low blood oxygen levels. Day-to-day management of the chronic lung disease is key. A good asbestosis lifestyle involves:
• Eating healthily
• Getting plenty of sleep and taking daytime naps
• Gentle exercise
• Preventing respiratory infections through flu and pneumonia vaccines as well as good hand washing regimes and avoiding large crowds
• Avoidance of air pollution and tobacco smoke, both of which can exacerbate symptoms
Asbestosis sufferers who are also smokers are strongly advised to stop smoking. Not only can smoking worsen your asbestosis symptoms, but it can drastically increase your likelihood of getting lung cancer if you already suffer from asbestosis. Asbestosis sufferers are at an increased risk of developing asbestos-related cancers (such as mesothelioma) and so require careful monitoring.
The nature of asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, is that they take many years to manifest. This means that by the time they are diagnosed it is far too late for change. Therefore, focus should be on preventing exposure occurring in the first place. The current UK asbestos legislation aims to ensure that asbestos containing materials are handled with appropriate care. The important asbestos legislation is as follows.
• The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
• The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974
• The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
• The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015
Additionally, those working with asbestos should undertake asbestos training to equip them with the knowledge and skills to protect themselves from the risks like the development of asbestosis.