Pulmonary Function Tests, Non-invasive Tools to Assess Veterans’ Asbestos Exposure


In the 1900s, asbestos use was widespread in most industry segments, and the military industry was no exception. With ships needing a fireproof environment to face battles, the Navy used the most asbestos products of all service branches.

Consequently, shipyards, naval bases, and vessels harbored industrial volumes of asbestos, putting shipyard workers and naval personnel at a high risk of inhaling or ingesting dangerous amounts of asbestos fibers. Due to the long latency period of illnesses stemming from asbestos exposure, veterans are usually diagnosed when conditions reach advanced stages, so timely detection becomes critical. One method to assess if former service members have asbestos fibers in their lungs is the pulmonary function test (PFT).

Also known as the breathing test, this medical procedure is a non-invasive diagnostic routine that accurately shows the lungs' degenerative processes in evolution and helps find restrictive deficits most commonly associated with asbestosis - a disease directly linked to asbestos fibers in the lungs. Asbestosis forms when inhaled asbestos particles cause scarring of the lung tissue, and the scarred area becomes thick and stiff, making breathing difficult. The severe condition manifests symptoms such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • chronic dry cough
  • recurring lung infections and pneumonia
  • chest tightness or pain
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • crackling sound while inhaling
  • widened and rounded fingertips and toes (clubbing)

Pulmonary Function Test Findings Associated With Asbestos Illnesses

PFTs involve a series of breathing maneuvers to measure the airflow and volume in the lungs, allowing the doctor to assess objectively how well the lungs are functioning.

These tests can determine whether an obstructive or restrictive disease is present and its location. These measurements show how effectively you can breathe and how efficiently your lungs can deliver oxygen throughout the body and detail the main aspects of lungs functioning through:

  • spirometry
  • lung volumes
  • diffusion capacity of the lung

The most common form of PFT is spirometry, which is also the easiest, fastest, and most readily available method. The VA rating system uses mainly spirometry results when evaluating a respiratory disorder. Spirometry records the amount and the rate of air you breathe in and out over a period of time and measures two main lung functions:

  • forced vital capacity (FVC) - the quantity of air forcibly exhaled after deep inhalation
  • forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) - the amount of air forcibly exhaled in the first second; this value determines the degree of obstruction (mild, moderate, or severe) of the air through the lungs

Doctors typically perform PFTs when initially diagnosing a condition and then periodically afterward to scale the severity of the illness. Generally, PFTs are required for:

  • diagnosing certain types of lung affections
  • finding the cause of shortness of breath
  • measuring the effects of toxic exposure

PFT values or results are expressed as a percentage based on the veteran's age, height, ethnicity, and sex. Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories based on various ways to determine average values of:

  • forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1)
  • forced expiratory flow 25% to 75% (FEF25-75)
  • functional residual capacity (FRC)
  • maximum voluntary ventilation (MVV)
  • residual volume (RV)
  • peak expiratory flow (PEF)
  • slow vital capacity (SVC)
  • total lung capacity (TLC)

When searching for the effects of asbestos exposure, pulmonary specialists look for abnormal spirometry findings, numbers that differ from the average numbers, indicating a lung disease. A value is generally considered abnormal if it is approximately less than 80% of the patient's predicted result. Such findings are characteristic of obstructive lung conditions that can make lungs contain too much air and take longer to empty with exhalation:

  • emphysema
  • asthma
  • chronic bronchitis
  • infections
  • COPD

Restrictive lung conditions form in scarred lungs and make them smaller so that they contain too little air and are poor at transferring oxygen into the blood:

  • asbestosis
  • pulmonary fibrosis
  • sarcoidosis and scleroderma

Asbestosis is commonly associated with restrictive patterns on spirometry, but in some cases, it may show combined restrictive and obstructive patterns, requiring further assessment and additional specialized tests for a precise diagnosis. After the VA determines a service connection for the respiratory disorder, they will provide a rating based on the corresponding diagnostic code for an obstructive or restrictive condition.

Diseases Caused by Asbestos Exposure Are Often Misdiagnosed

Asbestos-related illnesses have complex biological mechanisms that interact on several levels, like genetics, immune reactions, and individual responses to toxic elements. It's why doctors often misread the symptoms and misdiagnose these diseases. To avoid a misdiagnosis, former Navy personnel should seek a second or third doctor's opinion outside the VA to ensure they'll receive an exact diagnosis and follow an appropriate treatment. Veterans can significantly help with a correct evaluation by speaking to their doctor about the military service and possible asbestos exposure during their time on the ships. Sharing these vital details could lead to the discovery of non-cancerous diseases such as:

Even if these conditions don't qualify veterans for compensation, they should be monitored, as they tend to become cancerous. Periodic CT scans, chest X-rays, and pulmonary function tests may uncover their unfavorable evolution early on, and a cancer diagnosis will qualify a veteran for compensation.

We Offer Assistance for Veterans to File for Compensation

Former military personnel harmed by asbestos fibers while serving in the Navy between World War II and the 1980s have the right to file compensation claims with the asbestos trust funds and the VA to cover the substantial costs that come with medical treatment if they have proof of asbestos exposure and were diagnosed with the following asbestos-related cancers:

If your medical records show any of the malignant diseases listed above and you decide to make legal steps, an asbestos attorney can help you collect the necessary papers and then represent you through the process, ensuring that your case succeeds. We can help by putting you in touch with legal professionals who are ready to take on your case.

If you have a cancer diagnosis please contact us

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