Smoking and Asbestos Exposure: Neoplasia, Tumors, and Cancer

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Asbestos exposure has clearly been associated with the development of pulmonary diseases including lung cancer, bronchial cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

Historical exposures to asbestos tended to mostly involve naval veterans serving aboard vessels fitted out with asbestos fiber insulation. Asbestos was used in all naval ships to insulate pipes, turbines, pumps, and other heat-sensitive areas in boiler rooms, engine rooms, and ammunition storage rooms. Various ship parts were also often coated in asbestos to prevent fires that would be disastrous for a vessel at sea.

Asbestos-related pulmonary disorders consist of a group of malignant and benign inflammatory-fibrotic disorders caused by breathing in asbestos fibers:

  • malignant asbestos-associated diseases include lung cancer, bronchial cancer, and mesothelioma, pleural and peritoneal;
  • benign asbestos-related pleural diseases are the most common abnormalities related to asbestos and include pulmonary diseases, such as asbestosis, pleural effusion, pleural plaques, or pleural thickening.

The Presence of Asbestos Fibers in the Lungs Entail a Greater Hazard than Smoking

Cigarettes contain many harmful chemicals that can weaken your lungs. This weakness accelerates the pulmonary fibrotic process caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Smoking cigarettes combined with exposure to asbestos can weaken your lungs in the following ways:

  • impairing the lungs' self-cleaning ability - your airways are lined with cilia, hair-like structures which sweep dust particles and other substances out to keep your lungs clear. Smoking damages the cilia so they are unable to work, making it more difficult to get rid of pollutants like the fibers from asbestos.
  • causing lung tissue scarring and inflammation - both tobacco smoke and asbestos fibers can cause scarring in your lungs. Additionally, smoking alters the immune response to asbestos, causing your lungs to develop more scar tissue than they normally would. This can accelerate the onset of pulmonary fibrosis.
  • impairing the lungs' ability to get enough oxygen - over time, tobacco smoke destroys the tiny air sacs in your lungs that transfer oxygen into the bloodstream. This could make breathing progressively more difficult if you have an asbestos-related illness.

As the body's defense system tries unsuccessfully to eliminate the asbestos fibers, it causes chronic inflammation, which stimulates the formation of scar tissue. It is within this scar tissue that benign and malignant tumors begin to grow. These illnesses have a long latency period and can be aggressive and notoriously hard to treat. Often, by the time you are experiencing symptoms and get a correct diagnosis, the only treatment plan is to slow the progression of the disease and make the symptoms more manageable.

Quitting smoking reduces the risk of lung cancer within five years of stopping, whereas the damage caused by asbestos exposure is irreversible. After quitting smoking, the damaged lung tissue gradually starts to repair itself, whereas the accumulated, inhaled asbestos fibers lead to inflammation and DNA damage causing lung cancer to develop several years after exposure.

No Matter Whether You're an Ex-Smoker, a Never-Smoker, or Even a Current Smoker, Your Exposure to Asbestos Is an Undeniable Fact

Naval servicemen aboard warships often slept in bunks below asbestos-covered pipes, and many veterans recall waking up covered with asbestos dust. The construction, repair, renovation, or decommissioning of ships favored the release of asbestos fibers into the air, increasing the exposure and the risk of Navy personnel as well as shipbuilders and dockyard workers developing asbestos-related pulmonary conditions.

If you were exposed to asbestos while serving in the Navy, no matter if you smoked or not, we suggest that you consider making an appointment with a pulmonologist who has experience caring for patients with lung diseases that stem from prolonged exposure to asbestos. He/she will make sure you receive an accurate diagnosis and the most up-to-date treatments and management recommendations.

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