Asbestos-related disorders are caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. The disorders include asbestosis, lung carcinoma, nonmalignant pleural plaque formation and thickening, benign pleural effusions, and mesothelioma. Asbestosis and mesothelioma both cause progressive dyspnea, as do extensive effusions and plaques. Diagnosis is based on history and chest x-ray or CT findings and, in the case of cancer, tissue biopsy. Treatment is supportive, except for cancer, which may require surgery, chemotherapy, or both.
Asbestos is a family of naturally occurring silicates whose heat-resistant and structural properties made it useful for inclusion in construction and shipbuilding materials, automobile brakes, and some textiles. Chrysotile (a serpentine fiber), crocidolite, and amosite (amphibole, or straight fibers) are the 3 main types of asbestos that cause disease. Asbestos can affect the lung, the pleura, or both.
Asbestosis is a form of interstitial pulmonary fibrosis caused by asbestos exposure.
Asbestosis is a much more common consequence of asbestos exposure than cancer. Shipbuilders, textile and construction workers, home remodelers, workers who do asbestos abatement, and miners who are exposed to asbestos fibers are among the many workers at risk. Secondhand exposure may occur among family members of exposed workers and among people who live close to mines.
Alveolar macrophages attempting to engulf inhaled fibers release cytokines and growth factors that stimulate inflammation, oxidative injury, collagen deposition, and ultimately fibrosis. Asbestos fibers may also be directly toxic to lung tissue. Risk of disease is generally related to duration and intensity of exposure and type, length, and thickness of inhaled fibers.
Symptoms and Signs
Asbestosis is initially asymptomatic but can cause progressive dyspnea, nonproductive cough, and fatigue. The disorder progresses in > 10% of patients even after cessation of exposure. Advanced asbestosis may cause clubbing, dry bibasilar crackles, and, in severe cases, symptoms and signs of right ventricular failure (cor pulmonale).
Diagnosis is based on history of exposure and chest x-ray or chest CT. Chest x-ray shows linear reticular opacities signifying fibrosis, usually in the peripheral lower lobes. Opacities are often bilateral and are often accompanied by pleural changes (see Environmental Pulmonary Diseases: Other Asbestos-Related Pleural Disease). Honeycombing signifies more advanced disease, which may involve the mid and lower lung fields. As with silicosis, severity is graded on the International Labor Organization scale (International Classification of Radiographs of Pneumoconioses) based on size, shape, location, and profusion of opacities. In contrast to silicosis, asbestosis produces reticular opacities with a lower lobe predominance. Hilar and mediastinal adenopathy and nodular opacities are uncharacteristic and suggest a different diagnosis. Chest x-ray is insensitive; thin-section chest CT is useful when asbestosis is a likely diagnosis. CT is also superior to chest x-ray in identifying pleural abnormalities.
Pulmonary function tests, which may show reduced lung volumes and diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide (DLco), are nonspecific but help characterize changes in lung function over time. Pulse oximetry measured at rest and with exertion is nonspecific but sensitive for detecting asbestos-induced impairment.
Bronchoalveolar lavage or lung biopsy is indicated only when noninvasive measures fail to provide conclusive diagnosis; demonstration of asbestos fibers indicates asbestosis in people with pulmonary fibrosis, although such fibers can occasionally be found in lungs of exposed people without disease and may not be present in specimens from patients with asbestosis. Thus, demonstration of asbestos fibers may be helpful but is not necessary for diagnosis.
Prognosis varies; many patients have no or mild symptoms and do well, whereas some develop progressive dyspnea and a few develop respiratory failure, right ventricular failure, and cancer.
Lung cancer (usually non–small cell lung carcinoma) develops in patients with asbestosis at 8 to 10 times the rate of those without asbestosis and is especially common among workers exposed to amphibole fibers, although all forms of inhaled asbestos have been associated with an elevated cancer risk. Asbestos and smoking have a synergistic effect on lung cancer risk (see Tumors of the Lungs: Overview of Lung Tumors ).
No specific treatment exists. Early detection of hypoxemia and right ventricular failure leads to use of supplemental O2 and treatment of heart failure. Pulmonary rehabilitation can be helpful for patients with impairment.
Preventive measures include eliminating exposure, asbestos abatement in occupational and nonoccupational settings, smoking cessation, and pneumococcal and influenza vaccination. Smoking cessation is particularly important in light of the multiplicative risk of lung cancer in patients who have both tobacco smoke and asbestos exposures.
Pleural mesothelioma is the only known pleural cancer and is caused by asbestos exposure in nearly all cases.
Asbestos workers have up to a 10% lifetime risk of developing the disorder, with an average latency of 30 yr. Risk is independent of smoking. Mesothelioma can spread locally, or it can metastasize to the hilar and mediastinal lymph nodes, pericardium, diaphragm, peritoneum, liver, adrenals, or kidneys and, rarely, the tunica vaginalis of the testis.
Symptoms and Signs
Patients most often present with dyspnea and nonpleuritic chest pain. Constitutional symptoms are uncommon at presentation. Invasion of the chest wall and other adjacent structures may cause severe pain, hoarseness, dysphagia, Horner's syndrome, brachial plexopathy, or ascites.
The pleural form of mesothelioma, which represents > 90% of all cases (the other 10% include pericardial and peritoneal mesotheliomas), appears on x-ray as diffuse unilateral or bilateral pleural thickening that appears to encase the lungs, usually producing blunting of the costophrenic angles. Pleural effusions are present in 95% of cases and are typically unilateral, large, and hemorrhagic. Diagnosis is based on pleural fluid cytology or pleural biopsy. If diagnosis is uncertain after these procedures, biopsy by VATS or thoracotomy is done.
Staging is done with chest CT, mediastinoscopy, and MRI. Sensitivity and specificity of MRI and CT are comparable, although MRI is helpful in determining tumor extension into the spine or spinal cord. PET may have better sensitivity and specificity for distinguishing benign from malignant pleural thickening. Bronchoscopy should be done to exclude coexisting endobronchial lung cancers. Increased levels of hyaluronidase in pleural fluid are suggestive but not diagnostic of mesothelioma. Soluble mesothelin-related proteins released into the serum by mesothelial cells are being studied as possible tumor markers for disease detection and monitoring, but the false-positive rate may limit their effectiveness.
Mesothelioma remains an incurable cancer, and long-term survival is uncommon. Surgery to remove the pleura, ipsilateral lung, phrenic nerve, hemidiaphragm, and pericardium combined with chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be considered, although it does not substantially change prognosis or survival time. No treatment substantially prolongs survival. Survival from time of diagnosis averages 8 to 15 mo, depending on the location and cell type. A few patients, usually younger patients with shorter duration of symptoms, have a more favorable prognosis, sometimes surviving for several years after diagnosis.
Complete surgical resection usually is not feasible. Combination pemetrexed (an antifolate antimetabolite) and cisplatin shows promise but warrants further study.
The major focus of treatment is supportive care and relief of pain and dyspnea. Given the diffuse nature of the disorder, radiation therapy is usually unsuitable except to treat localized pain or needle-tract metastases. It is not generally used for treatment of nerve root pain. Pleurodesis or pleurectomy can be used to help reduce dyspnea caused by pleural effusions. Adequate analgesia is important but difficult to achieve. Usually, opioids, both transdermal and delivered via indwelling epidural catheters, are used. Chemotherapy using cisplatin and gemcitabine relieves symptoms in most cases and sometimes decreases tumor size. Multimodality therapies are advocated by some authorities. Intrapleural injection of granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor or interferon-γ1b, IV ranpirnase (a ribonuclease), and gene therapies are under study.
Other Asbestos-Related Pleural Disease
Pleural disease, a hallmark of asbestos exposure, includes formation of pleural plaques, calcification, thickening, rounded atelectasis, adhesions, effusion, and mesothelioma (see Environmental Pulmonary Diseases: Mesothelioma).
Pleural disease causes effusion but few symptoms. All pleural changes are diagnosed by chest x-ray or CT, though chest CT is more sensitive than chest x-ray for detecting pleural disorders. Treatment is rarely needed except for cancer.
Discrete plaques, which occur in up to 60% of workers exposed to asbestos, typically affect the bilateral parietal pleurae between the 5th and 9th ribs and adjacent to the diaphragm. Plaque calcification is common and can lead to misdiagnosis of severe pulmonary disease when radiographically superimposed on lung fields. CT can distinguish pleural from parenchymal disease in this setting. Fat stripes may be mistaken for pleural plaques on chest x-ray. CT can distinguish pleural disease from fat.
Diffuse thickening affects visceral as well as parietal pleurae. It may be an extension of pulmonary fibrosis from parenchyma to the pleurae or a nonspecific reaction to pleural effusion. With or without calcification, pleural thickening can cause a restrictive defect.
Rounded atelectasis is a benign manifestation of pleural thickening in which invagination of pleura into the parenchyma can entrap lung tissue, causing atelectasis. On chest x-ray and CT, it typically appears as a curvilinear cicatricial mass, often in the lower lung zones, and can be confused with a pulmonary cancer.
Pleural effusions occur but are less common than the other pleural changes they accompany. These benign effusions are usually bilateral, exudative, and often hemorrhagic. They typically resolve spontaneously (see Mediastinal and Pleural Disorders: Etiology).
Last full review/revision June 2008 by Lee S. Newman, MD, MA
Content last modified February 2012