Asbestos Health Effects: An In-depth Analysis and Its Impact on Human Health

This page provides an in-depth look into the various health effects associated with asbestos exposure.

Detailing the impact on both the human body and the respiratory system.

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Asbestos Health Effects

Asbestos health effects have become a major public health concern, especially considering the material's extensive usage in the past century. Asbestos, a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals, was extensively used in various industries due to its resistance to heat, electricity, and corrosion.

However, inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibres can lead to serious health complications, ranging from lung diseases to cancers. This article aims to provide a detailed understanding of asbestos health effects, focusing on its impact on the human body and, more specifically, the respiratory system.

We will also delve into specific conditions associated with asbestos exposure, such as pleural plaques, diffuse pleural thickening, asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Information in this article is based on United Kingdom figures and facts provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Asbestos Health Effects on the Human Body

The primary asbestos health effect relates to its potential to cause harmful conditions in the lungs and chest cavity. Asbestos fibres, when inhaled or ingested, can get trapped in the body, causing inflammation and scarring. Over time, this damage can lead to severe health conditions and disrupt the functioning of the lungs and digestive system.

Asbestos Health Effects on the Respiratory System

Asbestos health effects on the respiratory system are particularly concerning. Asbestos fibres, due to their microscopic size and shape, can easily be inhaled, entering the respiratory system. They can become lodged in lung tissue, leading to inflammation, scarring, and potentially harmful changes at a cellular level over time.

Asbestos health effects

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Pleural Plaques

One of the most common asbestos health effects is the development of pleural plaques. These are localised areas of thickening on the pleura (the thin membrane that lines the lung and chest cavity).

Pleural plaques themselves do not usually cause symptoms or disrupt lung function, but they are often an indicator of past asbestos exposure.

They typically appear several decades after initial exposure to asbestos and are often detected during tests for other conditions.

Pleural Plaques
pleural thickening

Diffuse Pleural Thickening

Diffuse pleural thickening (DPT) is another potential asbestos health effect, causing a more extensive and continuous thickening of the pleura compared to pleural plaques.

This condition can lead to a restrictive lung defect, causing breathlessness and reduced lung function.

DPT usually arises from high levels of asbestos exposure, and its symptoms typically appear several years after initial exposure.

Pleural plaques and diffuse pleural thickening are common conditions related to asbestos exposure.

They indicate that the person has been exposed to asbestos but they themselves usually don't cause death.

However, they can potentially lead to breathing difficulties and might be associated with a higher risk of developing more serious conditions like mesothelioma.


Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease and one of the key asbestos health effects. It is characterised by fibrosis (scarring) of the lung tissue, which can lead to reduced lung function and breathlessness.

Asbestosis is typically caused by prolonged exposure to high levels of asbestos, most commonly in occupational settings.

In the UK, according to HSE data, there were 83 deaths from asbestosis in 2019, highlighting the severe risk associated with this condition.

Lung cancer - asbestos

Lung Cancer Associated with Asbestos

One of the most serious asbestos health effects is lung cancer. Asbestos-related lung cancer usually occurs after prolonged asbestos exposure, often in conjunction with smoking.

The exact mechanism by which asbestos causes lung cancer is not fully understood, but it is thought that asbestos fibres lodged in lung tissues can disrupt normal cell growth and division, leading to cancerous changes.

The UK sees approximately 2400 deaths related to asbestos-induced lung cancer each year, according to HSE data.


Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive form of cancer that predominantly affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and abdomen (peritoneum).

Mesothelioma is closely linked to asbestos exposure, with the vast majority of cases caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres.

Mesothelioma usually develops several decades after the initial exposure to asbestos. It's one of the most serious asbestos health effects due to its aggressive nature and poor prognosis.

The HSE reports that there were 2549 mesothelioma deaths in the UK in 2019, with a prediction of continuing high numbers into the future.

Asbestos health effects 2

Asbestos Health Effects Conclusion

Asbestos health effects are broad and severe, impacting both the human body and, more specifically, the respiratory system. Whether through the development of pleural plaques, diffuse pleural thickening, asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma, the dangers of asbestos exposure are substantial and long-lasting.

Though the use of asbestos has significantly decreased due to regulations and bans, we must not neglect the residual effects on those previously exposed and the potential risk in older buildings still containing asbestos materials. It's essential to continue efforts to educate about asbestos health effects and ensure appropriate safety measures are in place to prevent exposure.

The HSE provides numerous resources for understanding asbestos health effects and guidance on what to do if asbestos exposure is suspected. For anyone concerned about potential asbestos exposure, we strongly advise seeking professional help.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. Despite regulations and controls on asbestos use, many people continue to be exposed, particularly those working in the construction, shipbuilding, and insulation industries.

The WHO estimates that more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures.

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