Diseases Related to Asbestos Exposure

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First off, what is asbestos, this toxic substance we frequently hear about? Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be found in rocks and soils. Though it is around us daily, in small quantities it is not harmful. These mineral fibers are resistant to heat, chemicals, electricity, and fire, which made them extremely attractive for use by manufacturers.  In the military, asbestos was useful and affordable and used in a wide variety of construction materials. Prior to the regulation of the use of asbestos in the late 1970’s, it was used throughout all buildings and ships where soldiers slept, worked and ate.  Asbestos was used in the floors, ceilings, electrical wiring, roofing, siding, and insulation in all types of buildings. In vehicles, asbestos was incorporated into the heating systems, brake pads, clutches, gaskets, as well as in the manufacturing of bombers and fighter planes. This created a prime environment for asbestos exposure in veterans.

The fibers that form asbestos separate very easily into tiny pieces when they are handled or damaged. These fibers are easy to breathe into your lungs which can build up over time. The high use of asbestos in military buildings and vehicles prior to regulation made it very easy for certain veterans to be exposed. If you served in any of the following occupations, you may have been exposed to asbestos:

  • Mining
  • Milling
  • Shipyard work
  • Insulation Work
  • Demolition of old buildings
  • Carpentry and Construction work
  • Manufacturing and Installation of products such as flooring, roofing, cement sheet, pipe products, or the servicing of friction products such as clutch facings and brake linings.

Although the use of asbestos stopped in the late 1970’s, the toxic fibers remained in present installations. These asbestos fibers that a person breathes in get trapped in the lungs and over time can accumulate, affecting healthy tissue and causing scarring and inflammation. However, asbestos is slow to damage and symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not appear for 20 to 50 years after the initial exposure.  These symptoms can include shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain. Over time, if not treated by a medical provider, the symptoms of asbestos exposure can turn into the asbestos related diseases as described below.


  • A rare, aggressive form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart.
    • Common Symptoms:
      • Fluid build-up around the lungs
      • Pain around the rib cage
      • Breathing problems
      • Pain or lumps in the belly
      • Fatigue
      • Constipation


  • A chronic inflammatory and scarring disease affecting the tissue of the lungs.
    • Common Symptoms:
      • Cough
      • Shortness of breath
      • Permanent lung damage
      • Chest Pain
      • Fingernails/toenails that look wide or round

Pleural Plaques

  • Areas of fibrous thickening or scarring on the lining of the lungs or diaphragm
    • Common Symptoms (although often people have no symptoms)
      • Pain
      • Persistent coughs
      • Breathlessness

Lung Cancer

  • The uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells that begins in one or both lungs.
    • Common Symptoms (although often people have no symptoms)
      • Cough
      • Chest Pain
      • Shortness of breath
      • Wheezing or hoarseness
      • Repeated respiratory infections

Another risk factor in combination with asbestos exposure for developing asbestos related diseases is smoking. While healthy lungs can often regenerate and remove the asbestos fibers from the lungs, the lungs of smokers have more difficulty.  Smokers are at an even higher risk for developing asbestos related disease because cigarette smoke irritates the lung passages which makes it harder for the lungs to remove the asbestos fibers.

If you served in the military it is important to think about the occupation you had and the time period to see if you are at high risk for asbestos exposure.  If you feel you may have been exposed it is important to talk with your healthcare provider so they can make sure to examine your lungs to provide treatment and prevent damage.

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