Asbestos and your health
Asbestos becomes a potential risk to health if fibres are suspended in air and breathed into the lungs. Breathing asbestos fibres into the lungs can cause a range of diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Scientific studies reviewed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2012) show that asbestos can also cause cancer of the larynx and ovaries and is also associated with pharynx, stomach and colorectal cancer.
We are all exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air we breathe every day. Ambient or background air usually contains between 10 and 200 fibres for every 1,000 litres (or cubic metre) of air. Whether a person goes on to develop an asbestos-related disease depends on a range of circumstances or exposure factors. These include the level and duration of exposure, length of time since first exposure, the fibre type, and concurrent exposure to tobacco smoke and other carcinogens.
A very small number of asbestos-related disease cases occur each year in people who have not worked with asbestos products. The low number of cases makes it difficult to determine the exact cause of the disease or which exposure to asbestos was the contributing factor.
When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may remain deep within the lungs. They can lodge in lung tissue and cause inflammation, scarring and some more serious asbestos-related diseases, which usually take many years, if not decades, to develop.
The four major asbestos-related diseases are listed below. A person may show signs of more than one of these diseases.
areas of white, smooth, raised scar tissue on the outer lining of the lung, internal chest wall and diaphragm
often the earliest sign of exposure to asbestos
not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos develops plaques, possibly because of differences in their immune response to asbestos fibres
people with pleural plaques as their only asbestos related symptom usually have very little impairment of lung function.
a chronic condition caused by inflammation or scarring in the lungs
causes shortness of breath, coughing and permanent lung damage
caused by heavy, prolonged exposure to asbestos.
cancerous tumours that mainly occur in the lining of the tubes leading into the lungs, the smaller airways or the middle of the lungs
risk of developing lung cancer is increased in people who also smoke or have a pre-existing lung disease.
a rare form of cancer of the tissue that lines the body cavities, particularly the chest and abdominal cavities
in Australia, about 90% of all mesothelioma patients have a confirmed history of significant asbestos exposure.
Reviewed 25 February 2020