Key Facts:

  • Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral used as an insulation material and as a fire retardant. Exposure to asbestos can occur in certain occupations.
  • Inhaling large amounts of asbestos fibers or its dust over a long period of time can produce scarring of lung tissue. This scarring is called asbestosis.
  • Asbestosis is one of over 200 types of pulmonary fibrosis and is also classified as an interstitial lung disease. You may hear your condition referred to by any of these names.
  • The severity of asbestosis depends in part on how long you were exposed to asbestos and the amount you inhaled.
  • There is no cure for asbestosis, but treatment can help slow the progression of the disease and relieve symptoms.

What Causes Asbestosis?

Exposure to high levels of asbestos fibers is what causes asbestosis to develop. The airborne fibers and dust can become trapped in the alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lung at the end of the airways), where they irritate and scar the lung tissue. Since asbestosis is a progressive disease (meaning it gets worse over time), symptoms may not develop for up to 20 years after exposure. By this time the asbestos has significantly scarred the lung tissue, making it stiff and unable to expand normally. Smoking can increase the amount of damage done by asbestos and speed up the progression of the disease.

Who Is at Risk?

The main group at risk for asbestosis is people who worked in mining, milling, manufacturing, installation or removal of asbestos products before the late 1970s. With strict regulations in the United States, developing asbestosis from exposure on the job now is much less likely. Nonetheless, many workers in construction and some other industries still face potentially significant workplace exposure, particularly when they work with old equipment or participate in the demolition or renovation of older buildings.

Many homes that were built before 1977 may have asbestos in materials such as pipes, popcorn ceiling and floor tiles. Asbestosis does not occur from exposure to asbestos that is not in an inhalable dust form, so as long as the asbestos fibers are contained, it is not harmful, and you are not at risk of developing asbestosis.

You can find more information about risk factors and work rules designed to protect workers against asbestos in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: March 24, 2020

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