What Happens To Your Lungs When You Breathe Asbestos header image

17th October, 2018

What Happens To Your Lungs When You Breathe Asbestos

Asbestos is the biggest health hazard in the UK construction, killing around 5000 people every year in the UK, and that's not about to change any time soon.

What does asbestos do to you? Why is it so dangerous?

Knowing why you need to protect yourself against a hazard is one of the most important things to know because it gives you an incentive to avoid it.

Asbestos is mostly a health risk to your lungs, but how does it get in there and what happens to your lungs when you are exposed to asbestos? Let's take a look.

It's all about the fibres

It's not asbestos itself you need to worry about. Well, it is, but what we mean is asbestos isn't something that is going to reach out and harm you.

Asbestos materials can remain in-situ within a building or structure and be perfectly safe - as long as they remain untouched and in good condition. However, with our habit of refurbishing, re-decorating and improving buildings, not many materials can remain untouched for long.

As soon as you drill, cut, saw, knock down or otherwise disturb an asbestos material that has been lying dormant for many years, it releases its fibres into the air. These asbestos fibres are so light they can stay suspended in the air for days and even weeks!

Asbestos fibres are tiny, strong and sharp. Great properties for building products, creating strong, insulating and fire resistant materials. Not great for your health.

Asbestos and your lungs

Asbestos fibres and the human body don't go well together. When released, asbestos fibres mix with the air around you and get breathed into your lungs.

Remember when we mentioned that asbestos fibres and tiny, strong and sharp? Well, it turns out that these properties, while good for construction, are not good for the lungs.

asbestos fibres small

The fibres are so small they are easily inhaled, entering your respiratory system and lungs, and because they are so tiny, they don't get stopped by the hairs and mucus designed to protect you.

The fibres are so sharp, they hook on to the inner lining of your lungs and chest wall.

And these fibres are so strong, they cannot be broken down by the human body.

Because asbestos fibres are so small and light, they stay remain suspended in the air for a long time and this increases the risk of exposure to anyone in the area where asbestos has been disturbed.

asbestos fibres sharp

Asbestos diseases

Now we know how asbestos gets into your lungs, but what happens to your lungs now that you have breathed in those tiny asbestos fibres?

It's not good news I'm afraid. Asbestos kills around 5000 people in the UK each year, from lung cancer and an asbestos specific cancer called Mesothelioma. It can also cause debilitating, painful and sometimes fatal conditions such as fibrosis and asbestosis of the lungs.

Here are the main conditions that can affect you after breathing in asbestos:

Mesothelioma

Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause an asbestos specific cancer called mesothelioma. It's different to lung cancer in that it affects the lining of the surface of the lungs. Asbestos fibres are so tiny and sharp, they get pulled deeper into lung tissue with every breath.

The outlook for mesothelioma is poor, unfortunately, only 50% live beyond a year, and only one in 10 people live beyond 5 years after diagnosis. There are currently around 2,500 deaths from mesothelioma each year in the UK.

Lung cancer

It is estimated that around the same number of people die from asbestos-related lung cancer each year as from mesothelioma, so we are looking at around another 2,500 deaths each year.

This cancer affects the cells of the lungs, and is almost always fatal, with only a third living beyond a year of diagnosis and only 1 in 20 people surviving beyond 20 years.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a serious long-term lung condition that develops when breathing in the sharp asbestos fibres has scarred your lungs. These scars and the build-up of scar tissue causes symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and extreme tiredness.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for asbestosis once it has developed, and the damage to lungs is permanent and is likely to grow over time. Because of this damage to the cells in your lungs, you also are at higher risk of developing other serious conditions like lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Pleural plaques

Pleural plaques are almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos, so they certainly come under the umbrella of an asbestos-related lung disease. They are a fibrous thickening in the lungs lining (the pleura). Pleural plaques are not fatal, but they can make breathing uncomfortable. They can also be a sign that other more serious diseases may develop in the future.

Having pleural plaques doesn't mean you will get other asbestos lung diseases, but the fact you have pleural plaques means you have been exposed to significant quantities of asbestos and therefore lung cancer or mesothelioma may develop.

When do you get ill?

People don't get ill the moment they inhale an asbestos fibre, it can take decades before asbestos-related illnesses develop.

This is one of the reasons why asbestos is known as the hidden killer, because you may not even know when you have been exposed. The fibres are so small, you can't see them, and you won't instantly feel ill. Days, and weeks later, you will still feel healthy.

Why does it take so long to affect you? Scar tissue gradually builds up around the asbestos fibres that are lodged in your lungs (asbestosis), and over time, tumours can begin to form on the damaged cells.

Most asbestos-related diseases take around 20-30 years to develop following exposure. Although, after heavy and intense asbestos exposure, it could be as quick as 5 years.

The longer you have been exposed, and the higher the number of fibres you have inhaled, the greater the risk to your health.

If you need to refresh your knowledge you can watch a 5-minute toolbox talk on asbestos below.

Need to get your team up to speed on asbestos? Download the free asbestos awareness toolbox talk handout.

Thanks to the NHS for the survival statistics relating to mesothelioma and lung cancer for this article.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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