Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic (long-term) lung condition caused by exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is a general term for a group of minerals made of microscopic fibres. In the past, it was widely used as a building material.

Asbestos can be very dangerous. It does not present a health risk if it’s 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 damage them over time. However, it’s not the only factor, as many people avoid getting asbestosis, despite heavy exposure.

Jobs linked with asbestos exposure

The use of asbestos peaked during the 1970s, before declining during the 1980s and 1990s. You may have been exposed to asbestos if you worked in an industry where asbestos was used during this time.

Jobs particularly linked with exposure to asbestos include:

  • insulation workers
  • boilermakers
  • plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters
  • shipyard workers
  • sheet metal workers
  • plasterers
  • chemical technicians
  • heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics

Nowadays, you’re most at risk if your job puts you at risk of damaging asbestos in older buildings. For example caretakers, electricians and demolition workers.

When to get medical advice

Speak to your GP practice if:

You think you may have been exposed to asbestos in the past and have:

  • shortness of breath – this may only occur after physical activity at first, but it can eventually become a more constant problem
  • a persistent cough
  • wheezing
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • chest pain
  • clubbed (swollen) fingertips

Diagnosing asbestosis

Your GP may:

  • ask you about your symptoms
  • listen to your lungs with a stethoscope – if your lungs have been affected by asbestos, they’ll usually make a crackling noise when you breathe in
  • ask about your work history, particularly about possible exposure to asbestos
  • arrange a chest X-ray

If asbestosis is suspected, you’ll be referred to a specialist in lung diseases for tests to confirm any lung scarring. These may include:

The specialist will also consider other possible causes of lung inflammation and scarring. For example, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and connective tissue disease related interstitial lung disease.

Treatment for asbestosis

There is no cure for asbestosis once it has developed. It’s not possible to reverse the damage to the lungs.

Sometimes, depending on the pattern of scarring seen in the lungs, you may be considered for AntiFibrotic therapy to reduce progression of your lung condition.

Pulmonary rehabilitation may be recommended.

There are things you can do to help your symptoms.

Stop smoking

If you’ve been diagnosed with asbestosis and you smoke, you should stop as soon as possible.

Smoking can make breathlessness worse. It can also significantly increase your risk of developing lung cancer.

Speak to your GP for help with giving up smoking.

You can also phone Quit Your Way Scotland on 0800 84 84 84 to get more help and advice about quitting smoking.

Read more about stopping smoking.

Vaccinations

If you have asbestosis, your lungs will be more vulnerable to infection.

It’s recommended that you have the flu vaccine every year to protect against flu. You should also have the pneumococcal vaccine.

Long-term oxygen therapy

If you have severe asbestosis, your body may not be getting enough oxygen. Oxygen therapy may be recommended if you have low levels of oxygen in your blood.

Compensation

If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis or other asbestos related lung conditions, you have 3 years from your diagnosis to claim compensation. This can be done through:

  • industrial injuries disablement benefit – 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’ll 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’re the dependent of someone who has died from the condition, and you haven’t been able to get compensation through the courts because the employer has ceased trading

Read more about industrial injuries disablement benefit on the GOV.UK website.

How to prevent asbestosis

Large amounts of asbestos are still found in many older buildings. You should take precautions if you live or work in a building that may contain asbestos.

If you think your house may contain asbestos, contact an environmental health officer at your local council. Do not attempt to remove any materials that you think may contain asbestos yourself.

If your job means you could be exposed to asbestos fibres, make sure you are fully aware of how 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.


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Last updated:
08 July 2024