Pleural Plaques, Markers of Asbestos Exposure


When the health risks associated with asbestos became public in the early 1980s, the Navy stopped using asbestos-containing materials on its new ships. Nevertheless, until the change happened, decades of applying asbestos in building, repairing, or scrapping naval vessels exposed thousands of Navy veterans to the harmful effects of the toxic mineral.

Service on ships built before the 1980s meant living and working near asbestos products and routinely risking exposure. Wear and tear breaks asbestos into microscopic fibers that can float in the air for hours. It's the white dust many veterans remember. While asbestos dust was an immediate danger for those doing maintenance and repair tasks on the ships, it was still a lurking health hazard for all personnel onboard. It is why diseases stemming from asbestos exposure are on the rise these days among former service members of the Navy.

Inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers over a long period leads to incapacitating diseases decades later. When the first symptoms appear, illnesses usually reach advanced stages, and restoring health becomes a real challenge. A further degrading health condition is avoidable by going to the doctor immediately when the following symptoms persist:

  • pain in the chest or shoulder
  • persistent dry cough
  • shortness of breath
  • night sweats
  • fatigue
  • general weakness
  • unintentional weight loss
  • respiratory system complications

Upon inhalation, the tiny asbestos particles become stuck within tissues of major organs, and our bodies cannot eliminate them. It's the beginning of a slow and lengthy process of irritation, inflammation, and scarring that eventually leaves permanent marks primarily in the lungs, such as pleural plaques - non-cancerous collagen buildups that typically develop in the pleura, the membrane that surrounds the lungs and the chest cavity.

Plaques in the pleura are not typical in the general population, and there is a strong connection between these formations and asbestos exposure. Hence, on imagistic tests such as chest X-rays or CT scans of former Navy personnel, pleural plaques are clear signs of asbestos exposure and indicate a greater risk for developing severe asbestos-related conditions such as:

  • COPD
  • lung cancer
  • mesothelioma

Pleural Plaques Are Usually Found Incidentally

Because pleural plaques are asymptomatic, they are usually discovered during routine check-ups through chest imaging for other illnesses. Most of the time, doctors also recommend CT scans of the chest cavity for an accurate assessment.

In 20% of cases, pleural plaques can become calcified due to calcium deposits accumulating around the scar tissue. Calcium deposits harden the damaged tissue and appear on chest X-rays as translucent or white spots on the lungs, making them difficult to identify.

The typical X-ray image of pleural plaques, calcified or not, is that of thickened nodular edges resembling a holly leaf. A CT scan can reveal plaques anywhere in the chest, even if they are at the beginning of being calcified, and considerably narrow down diagnostic options. After discovering pleural plaques, doctors will know to search for other signs of asbestos-related diseases. Pleural plaques don't give specific symptoms, but like with all asbestos illnesses, veterans may witness:

  • persistent breathlessness during mild efforts
  • cough with little sputum

It's not unusual that breathlessness persists for several months before it becomes bothersome enough to be noticed. Although some individual cases may differ, the presence of pleural plaques doesn't necessarily cause reactions indicating health damages, such as:

  • nighttime respiratory symptoms
  • squeezing discomfort or pain in the chest
  • fever

More often than not, the blood's oxygen saturation is normal, and no sign of lungs malfunctioning gives away the condition. Only a chest X-ray will reveal opacities suggesting calcified pleural plaques, confirmed by more detailed CT scans. Because pleural plaques are signs of asbestos exposure, patients are usually referred to a pulmonologist for further tests like the pulmonary function test to see if or to what degree airways are obstructed and to evaluate lung capacity. Even if calcified pleural plaques rarely inhibit lung function and cause trouble breathing, they are indicative of paying close attention to severe asbestos-related diseases like:

  • pulmonary fibrosis
  • COPD
  • lung cancer or mesothelioma

Veterans with pleural plaques due to asbestos exposure may develop pleural thickening, affecting a larger lung area and preventing full lung expansion. Over time, plaques can decrease lung function and capacity due to the thickening of the lining surrounding the lungs. Besides reducing lung capacity, a thickened pleura manifests symptoms such as:

  • difficulty breathing
  • persistent cough
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood

Implicitly, pleural plaques may increase cancer risk for pleural mesothelioma or asbestos lung cancer.

Periodic Health Check-Ups Can Timely Reveal Asbestos Illnesses

Diagnosing asbestos-related conditions is a difficult task, as these diseases are complex and produce symptoms very similar to those of common respiratory affections. Distinguishing between an illness stemming from asbestos exposure and a less severe lung disorder presents many doctors with the possibility of misdiagnosis based on misreading the signs, resulting in inadequate treatments and wasted time when time is of the essence. As with all severe diseases, immediate action is necessary when identifying asbestos conditions. Veterans can expedite the diagnostic process by asking a second or a third doctor's opinion outside the VA, maximizing their chances for a thorough evaluation of their condition. Speaking about their service years in the Navy and the high risk of asbestos exposure on the ships built before the 1980s helps by giving their doctor a larger perspective on the circumstances that led to the current state of health. It could also help in diagnosing non-cancerous asbestos diseases such as:

Even if these asbestos illnesses don't qualify a veteran for compensation, they should be kept under observation because they tend to develop into cancer. Through periodic chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests, any cancerous transformation can be spotted early, and with an asbestos cancer diagnosis, veterans become eligible to file claims. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is never easy on anyone. Still, filing a claim has a statute of limitations of up to five years from the date of diagnosis, and veterans should keep this in mind if they wish to receive compensation. Family members of deceased veterans can file a claim for three years from the date of the loved one's passing.

We Offer Support for Veterans in Filing a Claim for Well-Earned Compensation

Former service members who served between World War II and the late 1970s in the Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, or U.S. Army Transport Service may be eligible to file claims for compensation from asbestos trust funds and the VA if they can show proof of asbestos exposure and have been diagnosed with the following asbestos-related cancers:

If your medical records confirm any of these cancers and you wish to make legal steps, a lawyer specializing in asbestos cases can guide you through the filing process and see that your case is successful. We can assist you in contacting expert attorneys ready to help you receive your well-deserved lawful compensation.

If you have a cancer diagnosis please contact us

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