Can COPD Be Caused by Asbestos Exposure?

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COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a common chronic illness that is most often progressive, meaning it gets worse rather than better over time. For this reason, many people find it difficult to distinguish between COPD and conditions like asbestosis that are connected to asbestos exposure.

But can COPD be directly caused by exposure to asbestos, a harmful, cancer-causing substance that was once incredibly popular, particularly in construction and manufacturing? What similarities and differences exist between COPD, mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer?

What Is COPD?

COPD is a lung disease that obstructs the flow of air from the lungs, making it hard to breathe. In an unaffected person, air travels down the windpipe and into the lungs, where it fills tiny air sacs, called alveoli. These sacs have thin walls full of blood vessels (capillaries) that carry the oxygen in the air you breathe in throughout your bloodstream, providing necessary fuel for the body. At the same time, the body expels carbon dioxide, removing the harmful gas from the body.

That’s how the lungs are supposed to work, but in a person with COPD, the elasticity of the alveoli and bronchial tubes is reduced, leaving air trapped in the lungs upon exhalation. Over time, this can damage the lungs, reduce lung capacity, damage the heart, encourage infection and reduce the level of oxygen in the blood.

About 15.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and the condition, along with a few other respiratory diseases, is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

Rates of COPD vary by state, though. West Virginia has the highest rate, with 15.3% of adults being diagnosed (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). On the other end of the scale, only about 4.1% of adults in Hawaii have been diagnosed with the disease.

Older people have considerably higher rates of COPD than younger people. For instance, about 20.9% of people between 75 and 84 have COPD compared to just 6.1% of their 25-to-44 counterparts. Generally, women are more likely to have COPD than men, though the difference is slight. About 7.2% of women have COPD compared to 5.8% of men (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

COPD Symptoms & Treatment

Like many of the conditions that are related to exposure to asbestos, COPD is a progressive, slow-moving disease, and it can take many years for symptoms to appear. That’s because the disease damages lung tissue over time, finally progressing to a point where the individual becomes aware of something wrong.

Signs of COPD include:

  • Daily cough with mucus produced, at least three months a year for two straight years
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Need to clear throat after sleep

Many people have mild COPD that doesn’t require treatment, while others with more serious forms of the disease may require treatment. Several options are available for treatment, but the most commonly prescribed is a lifestyle change — quitting smoking. Research estimates that as many as 90% of all cases of COPD are caused by smoking (American Lung Association).

Other treatments include medications, such as inhalers, steroids, antibiotics, and other drugs, and lung therapies, such as oxygen treatments and pulmonary rehabilitation, though these are usually reserved only for severe cases.

People with COPD also must avoid what is known as exacerbations, or triggers that cause their symptoms to become worse for a period of time. This could include exposure to a pathogen, such as the flu, or an environmental irritant like pollen.

Asbestos, COPD & Respiratory Disorders

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that once was one of the leading materials used in manufacturing and construction, but it’s been well-established that the fibrous material is also a dangerous substance when inhaled.

Asbestos has been linked to a variety of serious health problems, including multiple types of cancer and several respiratory conditions. Mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer all have been tied to exposure to asbestos.

COPD, which is a blanket term for two respiratory issues — emphysema and chronic bronchitis — has not been definitively connected to asbestos exposure, but the lung conditions that can be caused by asbestos exposure as well as new exposure to asbestos would likely worsen a case of COPD. There may be a statistically significant link between asbestos and COPD, but causation has not yet been established to the degree that exists for asbestos and mesothelioma, for example. A 2004 Swedish study indicated a higher-than-average COPD death rate among construction workers exposed to inorganic dust, including asbestos and dust from cement and concrete (PubMed).

Let’s take a closer look at conditions caused by exposure to asbestos:


A rare form of cancer that usually develops in the lungs. It causes chest pain, shortness of breath, painful cough, nausea and weight loss, among other symptoms, and is quite fatal. Mesothelioma, like COPD, can take years to develop, and many of the mesothelioma late stage symptoms are similar.


A chronic respiratory condition that’s caused when asbestos becomes lodged in the lungs and creates scar tissue. Symptoms of asbestosis diagnosis include tightness in the chest, cough and difficulty breathing. The disease is progressive and incurable, but the rate of progression is variable. Asbestosis is a notoriously slow-developing disease, sometimes taking decades to cause sufficient damage to interfere with normal respiratory function.

SEE ALSO: Asbestosis vs Mesothelioma

Lung cancer

The second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., and it’s believed that asbestos causes about 3% of lung cancer deaths. Signs of lung cancer include chest pain, difficulty breathing, weight loss and fatigue.

SEE ALSO: Mesothelioma vs Small Cell Lung Cancer

In all of these cases, the presence of COPD would no doubt worsen the prognosis of the person dealing with the conditions. Due to its nature, which is to damage the lungs over a number of years, a diagnosis of any of these conditions would likely have a much worse outlook if the individual’s body was already weakened by COPD.

Get Asbestos Exposure Legal Help

Compensation may be available even without filing a lawsuit. The Asbestos Trust Funds hold about $30 billion in possible compensation for individuals and families harmed by exposure to asbestos, possibly including those with COPD that is connected to asbestos exposure. Complete the form or call us toll-free (800) 352-0871 to find out how to receive compensation.