Ask the Experts: Asbestosis

Diagnosis education, Symptoms, Medication & Treatment

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a mineral product from nature that is resistant to corrosion and heat. Prior to the 1970s, asbestos was used extensively in construction. At atomic sites across the country such as the Hanford Site in Richland, Washington, asbestos was commonly used in products like floor tiles, wall and ceiling insulation, boiler linings, and pipe insulation. Undamaged non-friable asbestos does not pose a health risk and should be left undisturbed, however, asbestos does pose a health risk when it is disturbed, primarily through demolition when asbestos fibers become airborne. 

What is Asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by respiratory exposure to asbestos fibers. Prolonged exposure can result in lung scarring which contributes to shortness of breath. Symptoms can range from mild with shortness of breath only with exertion, to severe enough to require oxygen supplementation. 

Lung diseases are often divided into two main categories: obstructive and restrictive.

Obstructive Lung Disease Restrictive Lung Disease
Obstructive diseases make it difficult to fully exhale – the lungs have obstructions that prevent air from coming out or comes out slowly. Restrictive diseases make it difficult to fully inhale – the lungs are restricted from fully expanding.
Impact on Lung Function Impact on Lung Function
Alveoli expand with breaths but are unable to deflate or deflate very slowly. Alveoli deflate but cannot properly inflate due to fibrosis or scarring.
Lung volumes increase as air moves into the space but air cannot easily move out. Lungs become “stiff” and expansion is restricted.
Shortness of breath happens because the lungs are fullair cannot be expelled, and no more air can get in. Shortness of breath happens because the lungs cannot get enough air in.
Common Diseases Common Diseases
  • COPD
  • Asthma
  • Emphysema
  • Asbestosis
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis
  • Interstitial Lung Disease
  • Pneumoconiosis
  • Asbestosis
Treatment Options Include: Treatment Options Include:
Medications, often inhaled, that focus on opening narrow passages and relaxing smooth muscles within the lung. Treatment options are fewer and typically focus on reducing inflammation. Oxygen therapy is also used to maintain blood oxygen levels.

Treatment often includes a combination of inhalers to relax smooth muscles, open airways and allow for lung expansion in combination with medications such as oxygen to augment blood oxygen levels. 

Nuclear Care Partners’ BreatheBetter Respiratory Care Program can help former atomic workers with asbestosis and other lung disabilities. The goal of this program is to maximize health, well-being and quality of life by improving lung health through respiratory education, breathing exercises, supporting proper use of inhalers, symptom management and more.

To read the full article, check out our Fall 2022 Atomic Health News edition.