How Does Asbestos Affect the Lungs?

Asbestos can affect the lungs in many ways, resulting in a variety of conditions. One fact is consistent, however: with asbestos exposure usually comes some degree of damage to the lungs. Some patients are more susceptible to the severe affects of this dangerous fiber, like smokers and those with longterm exposure at, for example, a construction site. Others are able to treat their relatively mild symptoms and move on with their lives. Read below to learn more about the potential outcomes of asbestos exposure.


Shape of the Fiber

The shape and size of an asbestos fiber determines where it becomes lodged. The location of the fibers results in either lung cancer or mesothelioma. Regarding shape, straight fibers more likely cause lung cancer while curved fibers are more likely to be expelled from the lungs by the mucoliliary ladder.


English: This is an x-ray image of a chest. Bo...

English: This is an x-ray image of a chest. Both sides of the lungs are visible with a growth on the left side of the lung, which could be lung cancer. Category:Lung cancer Category:x-rays (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Various Lung Conditions

Based on fiber type, exposure length and other health factors like whether or not a person exposed to asbestos was also a smoker, asbestos affects the lungs in different ways. Asbestos fibers may affect either lung, the pleural coverings surrounding the lungs or the diaphragm itself.


  • Asbestosis: This was the first condition discovered to be connected to asbestos, recorded in medical literature in 1924 following the death of textile worker Nellie Kershaw. She received no compensation from her employer because her disease was not amongst the recorded industrial diseases of the time.


  • Mesothelioma: This type of cancer affects the membrane lining of the lungs. Most occurrences of mesothelioma are pleural mesothelioma, the pleura being the chest cavity lining. Pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma, affecting the heart and abdomen respectively, only make up approximately 1/4 of mesothelioma cases. Asbestos causes plaque to form within the pleura as well as in the visceral pleura covering the longs, the pleural space between the visceral and parietal pleura, and on the parietal pleura (the outside layer).


  • Lung Cancer: Each year of exposure to asbestos increases the chance of lung cancer by four percent, according to the Helsinki Criteria. This type of lung cancer is different than that caused by smoking and is referred to as asbestos lung cancer.  Lung cancer is more likely to be caused by 5mm fibers while mesothelioma is more likely caused by 3mm fibers.



Asbestos exposure negatively affects all parts of the lungs. Asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer are the three major resulting diseases. However they are more rare today due to a great reduction in exposure. Cases soared between 1970 and 1985 after the latency period which followed the greatest exposure period, largely consisting of men building items like ships during World War II.