Can Asbestos Cause Difficulty Breathing?

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Asbestos, once a popular material used in construction, plumbing and manufacturing, has been well-established as a carcinogen, meaning it causes cancer in humans. Since the 1970s, asbestos has been heavily regulated, and uses of it today are few, though it remains technically legal in the United States.

In addition to causing multiple types of cancer, asbestos has been linked to other health problems, including asbestosis and pleural mesothelioma disease, and many of the conditions linked to asbestos exposure make it difficult for victims to breathe.

Learn more about how asbestos can cause difficulty breathing, which conditions are most likely in people exposed to asbestos and what legal options might exist for those exposed to the harmful substance.

Asbestos & the Lungs

While it’s possible to accidentally ingest asbestos, the most common way to come into contact with the substance is by inhaling it into the lungs. This is due to the physical structure of the naturally occurring mineral. In its raw form, asbestos is made of long, thin crystals that are composed of tiny fibers that are easily released into the air with abrasion and friction.

Once the substance is disturbed, it’s dispersed into the air, where it’s too small to be seen by human eyes, and people can inhale asbestos without even knowing it. This is why today when asbestos is detected within a building, great care is taken to prevent the fibers from being released into the air.

After they’re disturbed and dispersed, asbestos fibers can be carried deep into the lungs, where they can cause scarring and make the lungs stiff, preventing them from fully expanding and serving their natural function of oxygenating the blood.

It’s not possible to feel asbestos as it’s being inhaled into the lungs, and symptoms of the various diseases that can be caused by the substance are the first signs of exposure. Unfortunately, these signs generally don’t begin showing up for several years after a person came into contact with asbestos.


About 3,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with mesothelioma every year. This rare form of cancer affects the mesothelium, a thin layer that covers much of the inside of the body, coating many vital organs, including the lungs.

As many as 80% of all cases of mesothelioma are caused by exposure to asbestos (American Cancer Society), and a majority of the people who have been diagnosed with this often-fatal cancer worked in occupations where asbestos was commonly present, including miners, electricians, shipyard workers, pipefitters and others.

Asbestos causes mesothelioma by being inhaled (or ingested) and becoming lodged in the lungs or other areas of the body, creating inflammation, scarring and the DNA damage that leads to uncontrolled cell growth, or cancer.

Most mesothelioma cases occur in the lungs, though some also occur in the abdomen. Common symptoms of both types include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Painful cough
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Weight loss


Sometimes mistaken for mesothelioma, asbestosis is a chronic disease that’s caused when the fibers of an asbestos-containing product, or natural asbestos, are lodged in the lungs. Over time, the fibers create scarring and prevent the lungs from operating normally by keeping them from expanding as fully as they should.

SEE ALSO: Asbestosis vs Mesothelioma Cancer Differences

Rates of asbestosis are difficult to pinpoint, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not published new findings on this condition for a number of years. However, an estimated 13,024 people died from asbestosis between 2005 and 2014, with people 85 and older accounting for just under one-third of all deaths (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Asbestosis is a progressive condition, worsening over time in many patients, and there is no known cure for it. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Cough
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Chest pain
  • Clubbing of fingertips and toes (tips that appear wider and rounder than normal)

Lung Cancer

Just behind breast cancer in terms of the number of cases diagnosed per year, lung cancer is another commonly diagnosed medical condition resulting from exposure to asbestos. It’s estimated that as many as 3% of deaths from lung cancer are due to asbestos exposure.

SEE ALSO: Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer

A majority of lung cancer cases in asbestos-exposed workers occurred at least 15 years after initial exposure to the substance (American Cancer Society).

Signs of lung cancer include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Weight loss
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue or anemia
  • Loss of appetite

Pleural Disease

In a well-functioning respiratory system, the pleura lines, cushions and protects the lungs. But in a person who has been exposed to asbestos, this lining thickens dangerously, causing fluid and plaque build-ups to occur in the linings of the lungs.

SEE ALSO: Diagnosed with Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural disease may be progressive, and many people with the disease will soon be diagnosed with asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer.

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough
  • Persistent hiccups
  • Chest pain


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a collection of disorders, including asthma and chronic bronchitis. Together, the diseases that constitute COPD are among the leading causes of death in the United States.

SEE ALSO: Can COPD Be Caused by Asbestos Exposure?

To date, insufficient scientific study has been done to establish a causal connection between exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of COPD, but some research has suggested a connection exists. A 2004 Swedish study found that construction workers exposed to dust that included asbestos had higher rates of death from COPD than others their age (PubMed).

An estimated 16 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, and older people are more likely than younger ones to have the disease (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Signs of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Lack of energy

Get Asbestos Cancer Legal Help

Victims of asbestos exposure and their families have many options to seek compensation for their exposure to the harmful substance. The Asbestos Trust Funds may be an option, and about $30 billion in compensation is available from the trusts. This means victims and their families could be eligible for compensation without seeking a lawsuit. Complete the form or call us toll-free (800) 352-0871 to find out how to receive compensation.