How does asbestosis develop?

Posted: 23rd Jan 18 10:14 AM

Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis that typically develops after several years of prolonged and high exposure to asbestos dust and fibres, usually 5 years or more.

Inhaled asbestos fibres damage the lungs, causing scar tissue to develop, making it progressively more difficult to breathe.

In most cases, asbestosis develops after asbestos has accumulated in the lungs for many years. The asbestos fibres permanently damage the alveoli (air sacks which supply oxygen to the blood) in the lungs. Asbestosis is a form of pulmonary fibrosis where the lung tissue becomes thickened and stiff over a period of time due to the presence of asbestos and damage caused by asbestos fibres.

As the lung tissue becomes scarred and thicker, it loses its elasticity and ability to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream. As a result of this, the condition can make it significantly more difficult to breathe.

Where can asbestos exposure occur?

As with all asbestos-related diseases, occupational asbestos exposure is the primary cause of asbestosis. The majority of asbestosis cases in the UK and around the world are traced back to working in occupations where asbestos was used on an industrial scale, such as:

  • Shipbuilding;
  • Construction and demolition;
  • Pipefitting and boiler works;
  • Insulation (lagging).

Because workers from various trades could share a single jobsite, it could take one negligent worker to place many people at risk. Asbestos dust can spread around jobsites easily and expose many people.

Even worse, workers could have brought the dust and fibres home on their work clothes, in their hair, or on their tools, which could place their families at risk of secondary exposure, which can be just as harmful to their health. Secondary exposure to asbestos dust and fibres is a known cause for other asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma and pleural thickening.

Latency period of asbestosis

Asbestosis, along with other asbestos-related diseases, has a very long latency period, which means that the disease does not usually develop until many years after the asbestos exposure that caused it.

In most cases, symptoms take 20 to 40 years to present themselves from the time someone is initially exposed to asbestos fibres.

Certain imaging scans and other clinical testing, such as CT scans and X-Rays, can sometimes detect signs of asbestosis before major symptoms arise. If you have been exposed to asbestos and begin to feel out of breath or struggle to walk short distances before becoming short of breath, it is important to get checked by a doctor or consultant specialising in respiratory conditions.

If you or a loved one is ever diagnosed with asbestosis or another asbestos-related condition, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the National Asbestos Helpline. We’re here to help you with advice about your condition and how to cope with it, and can also advise on any benefits and/ or compensation you might be entitled to. Call us on Freephone 0808 223 0726, or email

Further reading

What is asbestosis?

What is asbestos?

What is mesothelioma?

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