Asbestosis – what is it and who is likely to suffer?

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Long-term exposure to asbestos can cause serious health conditions that in some cases can be fatal. If you know you worked with asbestos before it was banned, there's no doubt you will be questioning the effect it has had on your health. In this blog, we look at asbestosis – what it is and who is likely to suffer from it.

What is asbestosis, and how is it diagnosed?

Asbestosis is a serious lung condition which is caused by long-term exposure to asbestos – a natural material that was once used to make thousands of products. Now banned in the UK, asbestos is classed as a carcinogen because it has the potential to cause cancer and serious degenerative illnesses, like asbestosis.

This irreversible scarring of the lung tissue is classed as a type of pulmonary fibrosis. The severity of the condition depends on how long you were exposed to asbestos and how much of it you inhaled.

The symptoms of asbestosis

It can take between 20 and 30 years before the symptoms of asbestosis appear. The most common symptoms include:

  • a persistent cough
  • wheezing
  • difficulty breathing/shortness of breath
  • pain in the chest or shoulder
  • extreme tiredness (fatigue)

More advanced cases can also cause swollen (clubbed) fingertips.

Who is at risk of developing asbestosis?

Long-term exposure to asbestos puts you at risk of developing asbestosis. If you worked in the construction or building industry (including shipbuilding), before it was banned in 1999 in the United Kingdom, then you may have been exposed.

Today, the greatest risk to tradespeople is disturbing asbestos in properties built before the year 2000. Once a popular building material, asbestos is still found extensively in older properties, and some professions are more at risk of finding it, such as:

  • joiners
  • electricians
  • roofers
  • gas engineers
  • heating and ventilation engineers
  • plumbers
  • demolition workers
  • computer and data installers
  • telephone engineers

We'll look at what to do if you think you've found asbestos later in this blog.

When to seek help and what to expect

If you're suffering from any of the symptoms of asbestosis and you think you may have been exposed to asbestos in the past, then arrange an appointment with your GP.

Your doctor will ask about your work history and listen to your chest. If they think you are suffering from a lung condition, they will refer you to a specialist for further tests. This may include a chest X-ray, a CT scan, and a lung function test.

There is no cure for asbestosis – the damage caused to the lungs cannot be reversed –
but there are treatments that can help manage the symptoms, including:

  • pulmonary rehabilitation, and
  • pure oxygen therapy

Giving up smoking can help ease the symptoms, and reduces the chances of the damage getting any worse and causing a type of lung cancer.

How to protect yourself from asbestos  

Over twenty tradespeople a week still die from asbestos-related conditions, and though education has improved awareness in the industry, there is still work to be done.

If you don't know asbestos is there, you could unknowingly disturb or damage it, for example, by drilling through it. Asbestos is only dangerous when it is in poor condition – once its fibres become airborne, you (and your colleagues nearby) are at risk of inhaling them.

If you're working on an older property, always assume that asbestos could be present, and take the necessary precautions. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) recommends that any tradesperson at risk of being exposed to asbestos should wear their personal protective equipment (PPE) and follow the site rules closely.

Non-domestic buildings built before the year 2000 should have an asbestos management plan in place that details the location of any confirmed asbestos and its condition, but for residential properties, you won't have this information.

If you find something that looks like it might be asbestos, do not try to remove it without the proper training and equipment. Move away from the area, inform the site manager, then call a professional asbestos removal company for advice.

Significant refurbishment and demolition are subject to different rules. A dedicated survey to check for asbestos must be completed before any work can begin.

Thanks to better education on the dangers of asbestos, the rate of asbestosis in people under the age of 65 is falling, but sadly, cases are still rising in over 75s.

Support and help for asbestosis sufferers

If you've been diagnosed with asbestosis, then you may benefit from talking to someone who understands what you are going through. Just some of the support groups that exist for people with asbestosis include:

Asbestosis support groups offer more than just emotional support. They also offer financial advice, and in some cases, they may be able to tell you if you're entitled to compensation or additional government benefits.

Asbestosis – the key takeaway

Asbestosis is a serious lung condition caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. If you have any of the symptoms and you think you may have been exposed in the past, then make an appointment with your GP. Scarring of the lungs is irreversible and there is no cure for asbestosis but there are treatments that can help manage the symptoms.

Since asbestos was banned in the UK, the risk of exposure has significantly reduced, but if you work in a profession that involves maintenance and refurbishment, there is still a chance you could come into contact with this harmful material in older buildings.

To protect yourself from asbestosis and other related conditions, you should never attempt to remove asbestos yourself – call in the experts. At Asbestos Gone, we offer a professional removal service and for your peace of mind we are also available 24/7 for advice.