Asbestosis is a chronic (long-term) lung condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos is a general term for a group of minerals made of microscopic fibres. In the past, it was widely used in construction.
Asbestos can be very dangerous. It does not present a health risk if it is undisturbed, but if material containing asbestos is chipped, drilled, broken or allowed to deteriorate, it can release a fine dust that contains asbestos fibres.
When the dust is breathed in, the asbestos fibres enter the lungs and can gradually damage them over time. For asbestosis to develop, prolonged exposure to relatively high numbers of the fibres is necessary. However, it is not the only factor, as many people avoid getting asbestosis, despite heavy exposure.
Read more about the causes of asbestosis.
Symptoms of asbestosis
Breathing in asbestos fibres may eventually scar the lungs of some people, which can lead to a number of symptoms, including:
- shortness of breath – this may only occur after physical activity at first, but it can eventually become a more constant problem
- a persistent cough
- fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- chest pain
- in more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips
Nowadays, most people who are diagnosed with asbestosis were exposed many years ago, before there were effective controls on exposure to asbestos fibres in the workplace.
See your GP if you have the above symptoms and you think you may have been exposed to asbestos in the past.
Read more about diagnosing asbestosis.
There is no cure for asbestosis once it has developed, because it is not possible to reverse the damage to the lungs.
One of the most important things someone with the condition can do is to stop smoking, if they smoke. This is because the symptoms are more likely to get worse in people who smoke, and smoking also increases the risk of lung cancer in people with asbestosis.
If necessary, treatments such as oxygen therapy can improve the quality of life of someone with asbestosis.
Read more about treating asbestosis.
The outlook for asbestosis can vary significantly, depending on the extent of damage to the lungs and whether any other conditions are present.
Asbestosis can get worse over time and severe cases can place a significant strain on a person's health and shorten their life expectancy, but in many cases the condition progresses very slowly or not at all.
However, people with asbestosis have a higher risk of developing other serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as:
- pleural disease – where the membrane covering the lungs (pleura) becomes thicker, which can further contribute to breathlessness and chest discomfort
- mesothelioma – a type of cancer that affects the membrane that covers the lungs, heart and gut
- lung cancer
Overall, more people with asbestosis die as a result of one of the cancers mentioned above, or from natural causes, than from asbestosis itself.
If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis, you may be able to claim compensation. This can be done through:
- industrial injuries disablement benefit – this is a weekly benefit that may be paid to people with asbestosis who were exposed to asbestos while in employment (but not self-employed)
- a civil claim for compensation through the courts – you will need to obtain legal advice about how to do this
- a claim for a lump compensation sum under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 – if you have asbestosis, or you are the dependant of someone who has died from the condition, and you haven't been able to get compensation through the courts because the employer who exposed you (or the person on whose behalf you are claiming) has ceased trading
Read more about industrial injuries disablement benefit on the GOV.UK website.
There are three main types of asbestos that were used in construction. Two of these – called crocidolite and amosite – were banned in 1985 (although voluntary bans came into force earlier than this) and the use of the third type (chrysotile) was widely banned in 1999.
However, despite these strict regulations having been in place for a number of years, large amounts of asbestos are still found in many older buildings.
It's therefore important to take precautions to reduce your risk of inhaling asbestos fibres if you live or work in a building that may contain asbestos.
If you are concerned that your house may contain asbestos, you can seek advice from an environmental health officer at your local authority or council. Do not attempt to remove any materials that you think may contain asbestos yourself.
If your job means you could potentially be exposed to asbestos fibres, make sure you are fully aware of what you can do to reduce your risk. Do not attempt to remove any asbestos you come across, unless you have been trained in how to do this safely.
Read about preventing asbestosis.
Who is affected
Asbestosis is a relatively rare condition, because it takes a considerable degree of asbestos exposure to cause it, and regulations to restrict exposure have been in place for many years.
However, in 2011 there were 178 deaths directly caused by asbestosis and 429 where the condition was thought to have played a role. 980 new cases were assessed for industrial injuries disablement benefit during 2012.