Can Asbestos Cause COPD?

June 2, 2020  |  Mesothelioma
Can Asbestos Cause COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a lung condition that blocks airflow, stiffens lungs and makes breathing difficult. The number one cause of COPD is cigarette smoke from either smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke. Can asbestos exposure cause COPD? The short answer is no, but it is so much more complex than that.

A Popular Substance

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that, once crushed, produces silken fibers that can be woven into textiles and incorporated into any number of residential, commercial, and industrial products. They are used to add heatproof, soundproof and corrosion-resistant properties. It also makes products incredibly strong with little added weight.

Each asbestos fiber cannot be seen by the naked eye. Asbestos was used to insulate electrical wiring, to line brakes and clutch facings, to insulate pipes and in numerous other everyday applications. The fibers were also incorporated into floor and ceiling tile, shingles and siding, plaster and textured paints.

Why Asbestos is Dangerous

The sharp, narrow fibers of the asbestos mineral can become airborne when the products they are used in deteriorate with age, Or when it is sawn, crushed, drilled, scraped or sanded, such as during the installation or removal of many building products manufactured with asbestos throughout the 20th century.

Once these extremely small particles are airborne, they can be inhaled by anyone nearby. Studies have shown that asbestos fibers penetrate cells in the lining of the lungs and become stuck there. The body’s defense mechanisms build up scar tissue around them, which can eventually restrict breathing and stiffen lungs, mimicking the effects of COPD from smoking.

Who Knew?

Alarms were first raised about asbestos in medical circles beginning in the 1930s, when industrial hygiene and other medical experts employed by companies that used asbestos in manufacturing or insulation saw increased rates of lung disease in their workers. Unfortunately, these corporate scientists were ordered not to create labor problems or make any costly recommendations to improve worker safety.

It wasn’t until an epidemiologist in New York by the name of Irving Selikoff published the results of his analysis of the death certificates of hundreds of members of the Asbestos Workers’ Union in 1964 that an alarm was finally sounded. Still, asbestos manufacturers fought to keep from admitting liability. They insisted that workers’ lung damage was caused by smoking cigarettes, not asbestos.

People may wonder if a lifetime of smoking that has resulted in a medical diagnosis of COPD will prevent them from prevailing in a lawsuit accusing asbestos manufacturers of exposing them to toxic asbestos fibers. It is a good question, but generally no.

An Important Distinction

Years of research have revealed that there are numerous unusual cell mutations caused by more than 7,000 different chemicals in tobacco smoke, most of them carcinogenic. Some of these mutations are so unique that they can be used as a “fingerprint” or marker to demonstrate the link between a person’s lung cancer and a history of smoking.

Many of the unique mutations occur frequently in smokers who have been diagnosed with COPD and lung cancer. So, patients with COPD who have an absence of these chemical markers and a history of working with or around asbestos can more easily have their lung disease attributed to asbestos exposure.

But What If I Was Exposed to Asbestos and I Smoked?

One of the surest ways doctors can determine that a patient’s lung cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos is if that person has already been diagnosed with the lung disease known as asbestosis or asbestos-related pleural disease. This is important in patients who have a history of cigarette smoking, which is by far the major cause of lung cancer. A determination of these diseases is made clinically by a combination of chest x-ray interpretation and pulmonary function testing. 

Studies have shown that some patients with asbestosis or asbestos-related pleural disease exhibit more than a million asbestos fibers per gram in their lung tissue, so the scarring caused by asbestos fibers is readily apparent under a microscope. Also, honeycomb changes to the lower lung lobes seen in advanced cases of asbestosis are quite distinct from centrilobular (upper lobe) emphysema seen in cigarette smokers. This helps determine whether someone’s lung cancer was caused by asbestos or smoking.

What If I Have Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma patients who smoked can connect their disease to asbestos exposure more easily than lung cancer patients who smoked. One factor that helps doctors know that a patient’s mesothelioma was caused by asbestos is the ratio of asbestos exposure to mesothelioma cases.

Whether someone was a smoker or not, mesothelioma is practically non-existent in people who have not been exposed to asbestos. In other words, even if you were a lifelong smoker, it is almost impossible to develop mesothelioma if you were not exposed to asbestos.

Of course, people who worked with or around asbestos and who also smoke, particularly those who smoke more than one pack of cigarettes each day, are at increased risk for developing COPD and lung cancer and should be strongly advised to quit smoking. The bottom line is that if you are a smoker who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, liability can be assigned to the manufacturers who failed to protect you from exposure to asbestos or warn you about its dangers because statistics show you couldn’t have developed mesothelioma any other way.

If you or someone you love has been affected by mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos, you might be able to take legal action against the asbestos manufacturers responsible for your suffering. Please contact Baron & Budd complete our contact form online or call 855-280-7664 to learn more.

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