Diffuse Pleural Thickening, a Disorder Linked to Prolonged Asbestos Exposure


Asbestos exposure is at the root of several conditions affecting veterans today. Although the military started removing asbestos products in the late 1970s, replacing the carcinogen mineral happened long after it was discovered to be harmful to humans. Moreover, some military construction companies used asbestos products as late as the 1990s, extending the risk of exposure to asbestos fibers.

Of all military personnel, those serving on Navy ships built before the 1980s were at the highest risk of asbestos exposure. Shipbuilding used more than 300 asbestos-containing materials, so everyone serving onboard naval vessels risked inhaling or ingesting toxic asbestos particles. This is one reason why thousands of Navy veterans' health deteriorated years after their military service, and most of them developed severe asbestos-related illnesses.

One of the disorders stemming from inhaling asbestos dust is the thickening of the pleura, the lining surrounding the lungs, and the chest wall. This condition develops when microscopic asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs. It causes irritation, inflammation, and gradual tissue scarring, eventually leading to diffuse pleural thickening (DPT), a widespread fibrous scar tissue buildup in the pleura.

Asbestos Exposure, the Primary Cause

DPT is now a recognized consequence of asbestos exposure and benign asbestos-related pleural effusions. However, the mechanisms of asbestos fibers causing dense pleural fibrosis in DPT are only gradually becoming understood.

The development of this disease largely depends on the individual's inflammatory response, which determines whether pleural plaques or DPT will form after injuries caused by asbestos fibers. In some cases, DPT may coexist with pleural plaques, often accompanied by distressing symptoms such as shortness of breath experienced by over 95% of the patients. A link between pleural disease and asbestos exposure was first recognized in the 1930s, but it wasn't until the 1960s that a distinction between DPT and pleural plaques was made.

Given that a sizeable pleural surface is affected in DPT, the disease may cause respiratory failure and a "constrictive" deficit in pulmonary function but is usually asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic in the incipient phases. As DPT progresses, individuals will start experiencing one or more of the following symptoms:

  • chest tightness
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • difficult or painful breathing
  • chronic cough
  • fatigue
  • fever

Environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos are usually considered potential factors. Estimates suggest that approximately 13% of individuals exposed to the toxic mineral in the workplace likely develop DPT.

Periodic Check-Ups Help Discover DPT in Its Early Stages

DPT appears within 3 to 34 years after the first contact with airborne fibers, and the extent of this illness is strongly correlated with decreasing lung volumes. The diagnosis process can be complicated because of the lack of symptoms in the early stages, as most DPTs in incipient phases are discovered during routine examinations. Moreover, DPT may coexist with other asbestos-related conditions, making its detection challenging. Asbestos-related pleural plaques may accompany it, but DPT has distinctly different development, and they differ in:

  • place of origin
  • appearance
  • extent
  • symptomatology
  • functional impairment
  • prognosis

Benign asbestos-related pleural effusions commonly precede the development of DPT and contribute towards disease progression. Also occurring in association with this condition is rounded atelectasis. Physical examination may help diagnose the condition; doctors can check for symptoms, such as altered breathing sounds, but an exact assessment is usually done with imaging scans:

  • chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan
  • ultrasound

If your medical specialist considers pleural thickening a sign of cancer or another severe lung condition, they may order additional tests, including biopsies.

Besides asbestos exposure, lung irritants and infectious diseases are also common causes of DPT. However, the primary cause is asbestos exposure. Other causes include:

  • empyema
  • hemothorax
  • infection
  • inflammation
  • injury to the ribs or chest
  • lung cancer
  • pleural effusions
  • pulmonary embolism
  • tumors (benign or malignant)

DPT Is a High-Risk Factor for Developing Mesothelioma

The lungs in DPT are surrounded by grey fibrous tissue, which blends with the surrounding usual lining. It is why DPT doesn't have a sharp contour and is often associated with fibrous strands, or "crow feet." The fibrous tissue restricts lung function and may rarely result in respiratory failure and death. Although DPT is not malignant, it often develops into mesothelioma, particularly if someone has a long history of asbestos exposure.

The incidence of this disease is rising, and the total number is expected to exceed that of malignant mesothelioma. Thus, further research is required to offer knowledge of its natural history, radiology, and treatment. DPT treatment is primarily supportive and symptomatic care, as the effects cannot be reversed. In rare cases, patients may undergo surgical procedures to help relieve symptoms.

With a DPT diagnosis alone, veterans are not eligible for compensation. However, given that the cancer risk is high with asbestos exposure, and misdiagnoses happen often, getting a second and even third opinion outside the VA is recommended. Upon an asbestos-related cancer diagnosis, vets are eligible to file a claim for financial compensation. Additionally, besides mesothelioma, DPT may be a precursor of lung cancer, and these two diseases make former service members entitled to compensation from the asbestos trust funds and the VA.

An Asbestos Cancer Qualifies Veterans to File Claims

Former military personnel diagnosed with an asbestos-related malignancy and who have a documented history of military asbestos exposure may be entitled to VA benefits with a 100% disability rating.

In addition to VA benefits, veterans of the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, US Army Transport Service, or Merchant Marine are eligible for financial compensation from asbestos trust funds if they can show proof of asbestos exposure and are diagnosed with:

If your medical papers state any of these illnesses and you wish to take legal action, an asbestos attorney can guide you through filing a claim and ensure the successful outcome of your case. We can help by connecting you with law experts who are ready to assist you in getting the compensation you deserve.

If you have a cancer diagnosis please contact us

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