Asbestosis is a chronic non-malignant disease characterized by scarring in the lungs, caused by heavy exposure to asbestos fibers over a period of many years. This scarring is called fibrosis, and the more asbestos fibers inhaled, the worse the scarring or fibrosis tends to become.
Prior to the mid-1970s, the military used asbestos-containing materials in over 300 products. The Navy used these products during the construction of naval ships, from submarines to aircraft carriers. Navy members may have come in contact with asbestos during the building, maintenance, repair, or demolition of ships, as well as through day-to-day operations on ships, where asbestos-based products were present nearly everywhere.
Prolonged Exposure to Asbestos Leads to Chronic Lung Diseases
The diseases associated with asbestos are generally diseases of the lungs. They include malignant conditions such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and non-malignant disorders such as asbestosis, diffuse pleural thickening, pleural plaques, pleural effusion, and rounded atelectasis.
The initial symptoms of asbestos-related diseases tend to be breathlessness, difficulty swallowing, fatigue, and in some instances pain around the chest or ribs. These symptoms are similar to the symptoms associated with other non-asbestos diseases, particularly other lung conditions. Consequently, it is critical before any conclusions are drawn about the possible relationship between a group of symptoms and asbestos.
Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition caused by the inhalation and retention of asbestos fibers. Although the lengthy latency period for asbestosis can make it difficult to determine the source of exposure to asbestos, there are often likely suspects - as in the case of anyone who served in the U.S. Navy - the military branch most impacted by asbestos exposure.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, please consult your physician immediately, as despite this disease having an almost 100% mortality rate, there are treatments available to help alleviate the associated pain and reduce breathlessness.
The doctor will ask about your occupational history and more specifically if you have ever worked with asbestos and your levels of exposure.
Asbestosis is usually diagnosed based on the following findings:
- An exposure to asbestos that is considered moderate to heavy
- Shortness of breath - known medically as dyspnea - which the breathing tests show to be the result of reduced lung volumes or reduced gas transfer
- Crackles heard by the doctor during auscultation of the lungs
- Chest X-ray finding opaque masses in the lung fields
- Gradual progression of symptoms over time
Patients Diagnosed With Asbestosis May Develop COPD as a Complication
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a slowly developing disease that usually starts with wheezing, tightness in the chest, difficulty in breathing, increased mucus production, and coughs. These symptoms get worse over time.
Asbestos-related respiratory diseases such as asbestosis should also be considered in the differential diagnosis of a patient with chronic dyspnea. Most patients who have been most heavily exposed to asbestos are now aged 60 to 85 years and are former service members who worked on Navy ships. This age group is at increased risk of developing asbestos-related respiratory conditions that can cause pulmonary function changes that are difficult to distinguish from those associated with common respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, COPD, interstitial pneumonitis, and others.
COPD patients have a higher risk of developing lung cancer. Furthermore, COPD has symptoms similar to asbestosis and may co-occur with it. If you experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, dry cough, wheezing, chest pain or tightness, and have a history of asbestos exposure, it is extremely important to seek immediate medical attention.
"Doctors told me that I have end-stage COPD, but I think that it's worse than that because I did some research. I feel terrible, I just don't feel very well, and I know this can't be just regular COPD", said a Navy veteran who served on one of many Navy ships built at a time when the use of asbestos was abundant.
Doctors will stage COPD based on the severity of the damage in the lungs. During late-stage COPD, patients tend to experience frequent flare-ups. After each of these, their lung function will not return to the level it was at before the flare-up, and their breathing gets more difficult. They may need frequent hospital admissions or intensive home support due to regular flare-ups.
Many patients have the following symptoms during end-stage COPD as well as in earlier stages of the illness:
- Shortness of breath while resting
- Limitation of activities of daily living: walking, cooking, dressing and so on
- Chronic respiratory failure
- Respiratory infections, such as flu and pneumonia, can worsen COPD
- Frequent emergency room visits and overnight hospital stays
- Anxiety and depression
- Increased confusion or memory loss caused by the lack of oxygen or too much carbon dioxide building up
We Offer Quality Assistance to All Veterans Suffering From the Effects of Asbestos Exposure
Before asbestos dangers were discovered, the U.S. Navy used the toxic mineral as an insulation material for protection from extreme fire and heat aboard vessels. Asbestos-based insulation covered pipes and ducts throughout ships, and asbestos materials were employed in various capacities throughout ships' interiors. Pipefitters, boiler workers, engine fitters, sheet metal workers and welders have been among the most affected by asbestos exposure.
If you are a veteran and have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, the VA will compensate you as long as you were not dishonorably discharged and have medical records from your doctor proving an asbestos-related disease.