Asbestos is a type of rock that is fire-proof and does not conduct electricity, which made it a popular choice of material for buildings and lining pipes. Asbestos was commonly used in the UK from the Victorian era until its ban in 1999. The UK government banned its use when it emerged that asbestos fibres cause lung damage.1
There are several types of asbestos, with the following three being the most frequently encountered:
- White asbestos, also known as chrysotile, is the most common type
- Blue asbestos, also known as crocidolite
- Brown asbestos, also known as amosite
Brown and blue asbestos are more dangerous than white asbestos when inhaled, as the fibres are more brittle and needle-like. Luckily, brown and blue asbestos were less frequently used when asbestos was still legal.
All types of asbestos are harmless when left untouched and in large pieces, but damaging or disturbing the material will release hazardous asbestos fibres into the air. When inhaled, these fibres embed themselves into your lungs, causing damage that leads to asbestosis.
Asbestosis is a long-term lung condition caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. The asbestos fibres stick to your lungs, but may not cause any symptoms until decades after exposure.
Signs and symptoms of asbestosis
The symptoms of asbestosis are non-specific, but it is important to seek medical assistance if you show the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent cough
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Pain in your chest or shoulder
- In more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips
If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, even if the incident was a long time ago, it is important to mention this to your healthcare provider. This will help them arrange the most relevant tests.
Management and treatment for asbestosis
There is no cure for asbestosis as the asbestos fibres have already damaged your lungs by the time you are diagnosed. However, the symptoms can be treated to improve your quality of life.
Possible treatments for asbestosis include:
- Pulmonary rehabilitation: a programme of exercises and education to help manage your symptoms
- Oxygen therapy: breathing in oxygen-rich air from a machine or tank to help improve breathlessness if your blood oxygen levels are low
- Inhaler: to help ease breathing if your symptoms are mild
It is also important to stop smoking or vaping and stay up to date on your flu and COVID-19 vaccinations. This is because the lung damage caused by asbestos can put you at higher risk of developing more severe lung infections.
Diagnosis of asbestosis
Asbestosis is diagnosed using chest X-rays, CT scans, or lung function tests. However, your healthcare provider may do further tests like looking inside your lungs with a camera to rule out lung cancer.
Complications of asbestosis
Asbestos exposure doesn’t only cause asbestosis, but also a type of cancer called mesothelioma.2 When it affects the lining of the lungs, it’s called pleural mesothelioma.
Patients with asbestosis can develop pleural mesothelioma later in life. While asbestosis is contained in the lungs, mesothelioma tumours can spread to other parts of the body. The life expectancy of someone with mesothelioma is lower than someone with asbestosis alone.
How can I prevent asbestosis?
Asbestos is only dangerous when it's disturbed. If you know for sure that a building was built in the 21st century, it is unlikely to contain asbestos. However, if the building was built or modified before the asbestos ban, it is important to carry out a risk assessment before doing any work on it.
Part of the risk assessment is knowing what personal protective equipment (PPE) you need for your work. Firstly, you should see if you can complete the work without disturbing any asbestos in the area. If you have to disturb the asbestos, you should wear a respirator that can filter asbestos fibres as you breathe in. Furthermore, any overalls, gloves and other PPE that you use must be disposed of as asbestos waste. Proper disposal is important to ensure that you do not take any asbestos fibres home with you.
Who is at risk of asbestosis?
People who work in buildings with asbestos are at risk of inhaling asbestos fibres. Common industries and occupations include:3
- Construction: builders, roofers, painters and decorators, joiners, plasterers, shop fitters
- Installation: plumbers, gas fitters, electricians, phone, alarm and data-wire installers, heating and ventilation engineers
- Maintenance: engineers, repairers
- Excavation and demolition: contractors, surveyors
Even if you do not work in those industries, you can still be at risk if you live in the same household as someone who works with asbestos, particularly if you handle their clothing. Anyone living near a place where asbestos was used is also at risk of developing asbestosis.
How common is asbestosis?
According to the UK Health Security Agency, 905 people were newly diagnosed with asbestosis in the UK in 2019. In 2020, 530 deaths were attributed to asbestosis without mesothelioma according to death certificates.4
When should I see a doctor?
The NHS recommends that you see a GP if you have the above symptoms and believe you have been exposed to asbestos.2 Asbestos damage to the lungs will be confirmed by a chest X-ray, CT scan or lung function test. Even if it’s not related to asbestos, it could be another condition that needs treating.
Asbestosis is lung damage caused by breathing in asbestos dust. It can develop even if the incident happened a long time ago. The fibres stick to the lungs and cause excessive coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. It is important to see your GP if you think you might have asbestosis, as complications including lung cancer can develop.
Asbestos is safe to be around as long as it is not disturbed. If you plan to work on an older building, carry out a risk assessment beforehand.
- Asbestos: general information [Internet]. GOV.UK. 2017 [cited 2023 Mar 31]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/asbestos-properties-incident-management-and-toxicology/asbestos-general-information
- NHS. Asbestosis [Internet]. NHS. 2019 [cited 2023 Mar 31]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/asbestosis/
- Managing my asbestos - Tell people what you’re doing [Internet]. HSE. [cited 2023 Mar 31]. Available from: https://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/managing/tell.htm
- Asbestos-related disease statistics, Great Britain 2022 [Internet]. HSE. 2022 [cited 2023 Mar 31]. Available from: https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/asbestos-related-disease.pdf