The risk of lung cancer among people exposed to asbestos dust is increased by 7 times, compared with the general population. Lung cancer is a common cause of death and disease for people exposed to friable asbestos fibres.

What is mesothelioma?

Asbestos fibres can also damage cells of the lung and result in the formation of scar tissue in the lung, which is known as mesothelioma. It is a type of cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. There are four types of mesothelioma defined by tumour location: Pleural (lung lining), peritoneal (abdominal lining), pericardial (heart sac), and testicular. The main cause of pleural mesothelioma is exposure to inhalable and respirable asbestos fibres which settle and trigger different mechanisms in the lungs. The risk of developing mesothelioma is related to how much asbestos dust a person was exposed to and how long this exposure lasted. People exposed at an early age, for a long period of time, and at higher levels are most likely to develop this cancer. There is no safe number of asbestos fibres, inhalation results in health problems in as much as the body will remove most fibres that are breathed in. Some get trapped in the lungs and cause disease many years later.

The disconnect between workplace exposure and tracing the role it has played on the development of cancer is a delayed one. The progressive nature of lung cancer that develops from asbestos exposure has devastating consequences decades after consistent exposure. The higher the dose of asbestos you get exposed to, the higher the chance of coming down with lung cancer. 

It is at this point in the discussion where we do mention that there is no cure for lung cancer and at the time one confirms the disease it’s often too late to save a life. All sources of asbestos dust must be dealt with the right intent to protect workers and communities against lung cancer. Brave choices must be made to save lives and one life is too many if workers succumb to the effects of asbestos dust which lead to lung cancer. The article evaluates asbestos and lung cancer by answering the following questions:

  • How do asbestos fibres enter the body?
  • How can asbestos cause lung cancer?
  • Will we ever cure lung cancer? 

How do asbestos fibres enter the body? 

Asbestos fibres are small enough to enter your lungs through breathing, but not so small that they’ll find their way out again. Inhalation of respirable asbestos dust fibres is the path into the lungs. The asbestos fibres work their way through the lung and settle in the pleura, sack around the lungs. Asbestos occurs in bundles that only break lengthwise releasing numerous long, microscopic toxic fibres. Moreover, asbestos fibres also have a rough texture, by virtue of which they can easily become embedded in tissue. When they reach the lungs, alveoli close. Thus, asbestos fibres will remain stuck in the lungs, where inflammation and tissue scarring will gradually occur, which may eventually give way to cancer. Therefore, lungs cannot remove asbestos from your lungs. Instead, there are mechanisms by which asbestos fibres induce lung cancer. All forms of asbestos can cause cancer, breathing asbestos dust or fibres can cause severe lung damage. Asbestos is present in various things, both man-made and natural and it’s impossible to completely avoid. Asbestos exposure is inevitable, the main concern is whether the time-weighted exposure and concentration was excessive and consistent. Naturally, our lungs are very efficient at self-cleaning, but if one of these asbestos fibres imbeds itself in the lining our lungs it lodges there forever. Surely, concentration and duration of exposure play a pivotal role in lungs dealing with asbestos fibres. No amount of asbestos is considered safe. 

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How can asbestos cause lung cancer?

Asbestos fibres cause cancer by their shape and composition, some forms are needle-like and others are spiral structure and neither are water soluble. Asbestos fibres enter the alveoli, which are tiny balloon like structures that facilitate exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and disintegrate them leaving scars. Their ability to work is greatly diminished or completely stops. After enough exposure, your lungs are incapable of functioning properly. The body tries to fight off the intrusion of asbestos fibres and damage, producing antibodies to attack the fibres. These antibodies really can’t do anything, but they may mutate into cancerous cells. Potential mechanisms involved in the development of asbestos-induced health effects includes  direct interaction with macromolecules (DNA/RNA/proteins/membranes/lipids), via reactive oxygen species (ROS), and other cell-mediated mechanisms(there are many pathways). 

An expert panel convened by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded in 1996, “Overall, the available evidence in favour or against any of these mechanisms leading to the development of lung cancer and mesothelioma in either animals or humans is evaluated as weak”. Pulmonary inflammatory factors which are a subset of other cell-mediated mechanisms were considered by the IARC panel as having the most support among the potential mechanisms involved. 21 years later (a 2017, IARC collaboration with the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health) provided new evidence that asbestos exposure may induce DNA methylation changes in specific genes which provided new insights into the mechanisms associated with asbestos exposure that contribute to lung cancer. 

Symptoms of asbestos lung cancer

The progression of asbestos-related lung cancer often happens undetected and in stage 3 and stage 4 symptoms lead to the doctor’s visit. In fact, most patients get diagnosed at a later stage, raising the importance of lung cancer screening if there is any history of working with asbestos. Dealing with symptoms as soon as they develop may improve medical outcomes and life expectancy. Asbestos-related lung cancer patients normally experience respiratory-related symptoms which are given below. These include but are not limited to:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • A persistent, dry cough or wheezing.
  • Loss of appetite with weight loss.
  • Fingertips and toes that appear wider and rounder than normal (clubbing)
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Reduce chest expansion which leads to difficulty in breathing.
  • Fatigue
  • Hoarseness 
  • Fever 
  • Muscle weakness 

Identification and treatment of symptoms is vital for comprehensive treatment for asbestos-related lung cancer which we explore further in the next section.

Treatment for Asbestos lung cancer

The only treatments available are radiation, chemotherapy and or surgery. The extent of lung damage is irreversible and cannot be surgically removed but, in most cases, a certain percentage of lung capacity would have been lost. The only possible treatment is a total lung transplant which is moderately effective at best. Not a single disease but a loose group of many hundreds of diseases, cancer in general has been around since the dinosaurs. In modest terms, the longer we live, the more likely it is that something might go wrong in any number of ways and the continuous exposure to dangerous dust such as asbestos fibres accelerates the growth and mutation of cancerous cells resulting in lung cancer. Cancer is a living thing and is ever-evolving to survive. Advancement in gene technology has allowed for genetics to enable more revelation of various mechanisms giving insights on treatment and prevention. In the context of our discussion, prevention starts and ends with dealing with asbestos dust at its source. The main risk for developing lung cancer associated with asbestos is exposure to asbestos. Occupational asbestos exposure is prevalent in miners, factory workers, insulation manufacturers, railroad workers, ship builders, gas mask manufacturers, and construction workers. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure greatly increases the risk to lung cancer. 

Asbestos dust control – Managing Exposure 

Asbestos is a carcinogenic material as classified by multiple federal agencies and international health organizations. It took over five decades for the harmful effects of exposure to be officially acknowledged that asbestos is a human carcinogen. The negative effects of asbestos on health were first documented in the late 1800s after the steady rise of asbestos mining. In 1906, Dr Montague Murray reported the first documented death of an asbestos worker due to pulmonary failure caused by large amounts of asbestos fibres in the lungs.

A century after, the conversation continues, but this time GRT prefers to continue the conversation with the intention to save lives through dealing with asbestos dust at its source. For demolition and recovery site asbestos dust control, GRT Rubble-Loc is a cost-effective dust and wind erosion control technology designed to for use on dynamic sites. 

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Cancer and asbestos. Retrieved 08/07/21. 

How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer? Retrieved 08/07/21.

Olsson et al. 2017. Exposure-Response Analyses of Asbestos and Lung Cancer Subtypes in a Pooled Analysis of Case-Control Studies. Epidemiology. 28 (2): 288 – 299.