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Asbestosis is a chronic (long-term) lung disease caused by breathing in asbestos fibres. Asbestos is a heat-resistant mineral that used to be common in insulation, vinyl floor tiles, cement, brake linings and other products. If you breathe a lot of asbestos fibres over a long time it can cause scarring in the lungs and shortness of breath.

What causes asbestosis?

Asbestosis is caused by breathing in tiny asbestos fibres. When asbestos is cut, ground up or disturbed, tiny asbestos fibres can fly into the air and stay in the air for a long time. When people breathe in tiny asbestos fibres, they get stuck deep in the lungs. The asbestos fibres damage the alveoli, tiny air sacs at the end of your breathing passages where the oxygen is exchanged with carbon dioxide. The asbestos fibres make the alveoli stiff with scars and make it very difficult for lungs to take in oxygen. If you smoke and you breathe in asbestos, you may get asbestosis faster.

If you work in a job that still uses asbestos (shipbuilding, brake installation, building demolition, etc.), be sure to wear all the protective gear you need and follow safety procedures to reduce your risk of exposure. If you do not think your employer is doing enough to protect you from asbestos, contact your occupational health agency or the Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), a national government-funded agency.

If you are doing a renovation project in a home built before 1980s, you may be putting yourself at risk for asbestos exposure without even knowing it. Asbestos may be found in wall insulation, insulation around hot-water and steam pipes, soundproofing and decorating materials on the walls and ceilings, ironing board pads, textured paint, roofing and siding shingles, vinyl floor tiles and other items in your house. Having these items in your house is fine as long as they are not damaged or falling apart. If the material is damaged, do not remove it yourself- removing or disturbing the asbestos will release asbestos fibers into the air. Instead, call a trained professional to remove it.

It can take 20 or 30 years from the time people started breathing in asbestos to the time they first notice symptoms. The lung damage caused by asbestosis is permanent.

Some asbestosis symptoms are:
  • Feeling short of breath – at first, people may notice that they are short of breath while exercising or working hard, but people with asbestosis may become short of breath when they are resting.
  • Dry cough
  • Chest pain

Many symptoms of lung diseases are very similar. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. Your doctor can give you a complete exam that will help find out what is causing your breathing problem. If you have worked with asbestos, it’s important to let your doctor know.

To make a diagnosis of asbestosis, your doctor will:

  • Take a detailed medical and work history. It is important to answer all questions they might ask.
  • Do a physical exam.
  • Do a breathing test called spirometry. Spirometry is a quick, simple test where you blow fast and hard through a tube attached to a machine. The machine will show how much air you can push out and how fast.
  • Do a chest X-ray.
  • Do a CT (computerized tomography) scan.

Currently, there is no medication to stop the damage from asbestos. It may be possible to slow down the disease and decrease symptoms. When you have asbestosis, your lungs and the muscle around your lungs have to work extra hard to breathe. It is important to work on making your body as healthy as possible so you have the energy needed to breathe. This includes learning breathing exercises, eating well and avoiding things that will cause more lung damage. The main treatments for asbestosis include: 

  • Staying away from asbestos – stop your exposure. Quitting smoking.
  •  If you have asbestosis and you smoke, you are at higher risk for more lung damage and for lung cancer. Get help to stop smoking Following an exercise or pulmonary (respiratory) rehabilitation program under a doctor’s supervision. 
  • Learning about healthy eating and nutrition. 
  • Washing hands properly. 
  • To reduce risks of getting viral respiratory infections, be sure to wash your hands very carefully using proper hand washing technique. 
  • Getting vaccinations (shots) against the flu and pneumonia. 
  • If you already have a lung disease like asbestosis, getting the flu (influenza) or pneumonia could make you really sick. Your doctor may recommend you get the flu shot and the pneumonia shot (PPV vaccine). 
  • Using prescribed oxygen. Your doctor may order this if the level of oxygen in your blood is low. Draining fluid from your lungs, when needed. Getting a lung transplant, in some cases.