Asbestos Related Diseases

There are five main types of asbestos-related diseases:

  • Pleural Plaques
  • Diffuse Pleural Thickening
  • Asbestosis
  • Asbestos-related Lung Cancer
  • Mesothelioma

Hospital and diagnosis

When you are referred to hospital, your consultant will explain to you which disease you have.

It is very important that you know exactly which disease you are suffering from because you will need to know the exact diagnosis if you wish to claim any benefits and entitlements from the government.

Sometimes your consultant might tell you that you have “signs of asbestos in your lungs” or that you have an “asbestos-related disease”.

It is often difficult to press a busy consultant for a more precise diagnosis, but you will need to ask exactly what sort of asbestos-related disease you have.

If you are assigned a specialist nurse they will be able to tell you. It is useful to ask your consultant or nurse specialist to circle or tick one of the diseases listed on our leaflet.

You will then be certain about what information to give to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) or to your solicitor.

 

Table of contents

    Diagram of the lung

    lung

    The diagram of the lung shows the windpipe and the bronchus through which you breathe air into your lungs, and then into the very fine air sacs, the alveoli at the base of the lungs.

    The pleural cavity, shown on the diagram, allows space for the lungs to expand and contract as you breathe air into them. The pleura has fine membranes lining the chest wall and the lungs.

    Types of Asbestos Diseases

    Some of the symptoms of the diseases below occur commonly and don’t necessarily mean that you have an asbestos related disease.

    That is why it is important to get a clear diagnosis of your symptoms and to know whether the doctor believes the probable or certain cause is exposure to asbestos.

    Pleural Plaques

    Pleural plaques are localised, well-defined areas of pleural thickening, rather like calluses on other parts of the body.

    They are patches of tough sinewy tissue formed on the pleura on the chest wall. The pleura is a two-layered membrane surrounding the lungs, shown on the diagram.

    Sometimes these plaques are ‘calcified’ and may be referred to as ‘calcified pleural plaques’. Your consultant will be able to see these on an X-ray.

    Usually, you will not experience any symptoms of breathlessness or discomfort because of pleural plaques and it is unlikely that you will know that you have them.

    Pleural plaques are seen as the least serious form of asbestos related disease and are not in themselves dangerous.

    But, they are seen as an indicator of exposure to asbestos and there is a small chance, because of that exposure, that you may develop one of the other types of asbestos related disease in the future.

    You cannot claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit for Pleural Plaques because the DWP does not consider pleural plaques a disease for which you may claim benefits.

    Diffuse Pleural Thickening

    Diffuse pleural thickening is similar in appearance to pleural plaques, but the ‘thickening’ is more widespread and may involve both layers of the pleura.

    As with pleural plaques, one or both lungs may be affected. Diffuse pleural thickening can cause breathlessness and because of this it is considered to be more serious than pleural plaques.

    This thickening or ‘fibrosis’ can be identified sometimes through clinical examination, but is usually diagnosed by X-ray.

    Sometimes a build-up of fluid in the pleural cavity occurs before diffuse pleural thickening develops.

    This condition is called a ‘pleural effusion’ and can cause breathlessness and, in some instances, pain. It can take up to 10 to 20 years to develop pleural plaques and pleural thickening after exposure to asbestos.

    If you are diagnosed with pleural thickening then you may in certain circumstances be entitled to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit.

    The amount you receive will depend on the severity of your condition. You can also claim compensation from your employer through the courts if you were negligently exposed to asbestos or from the DWP if your employer is no longer trading.

    You can claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit even if you are claiming compensation from your employer, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re still working or are retired. IIDB can be backdated for up to 13 weeks.

    Asbestosis

    Asbestosis is the most widely known disease associated with asbestos exposure. Many people think that asbestosis is a cancer, but it isn't..

    Asbestosis is also sometimes called “interstitial pulmonary fibrosis”. Simply, this means that the lung itself is damaged by the body’s inflammatory reaction to asbestos fibres.

    The inflammation results in scar tissue, or fibrosis, building up in the interstitium (or tissue between the air sacs).

    The build-up of fibrosis reduces the elasticity of the lungs and they become stiff, making it less easy for the lungs to inflate on breathing.

    Symptoms of asbestosis include breathlessness, especially on exertion, a dry cough, and chest tightness.

    Asbestosis may progress even after exposure has ceased and it cannot be reversed. However, the extent of the progression varies widely, as does the effects on breathing. It can take a long time for asbestosis to develop.

    You can claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit from the DWP for asbestosis if you were exposed to asbestos at work and it doesn’t matter whether you’re still working or are retired. IIDB can be backdated for up to 13 weeks.

    You can also claim compensation from your employer through the courts if you were negligently exposed to asbestos, or from the DWP if your employer is no longer trading.

    Asbestos Related Lung Cancer

    Workers exposed to asbestos have an increased risk of developing lung cancer. This risk is greatly increased if the person exposed to asbestos also smokes.

    Because it is very difficult to distinguish lung cancer caused by asbestos and that caused by smoking or other environmental pollutants, it is often very difficult to get a clear diagnosis of asbestos-related lung cancer.

    Because of these diagnostic difficulties the DWP does not accept a diagnosis of asbestos-related lung cancer unless the person also has a diagnosis of asbestosis as well as lung cancer, or has worked in 4 specified manufacturing industries for a specified period of time:

    • The manufacture of asbestos textiles
    • Spraying asbestos
    • Asbestos Insulation Work
    • Applying or removing materials containing asbestos in the course of shipbuilding

    Where any or all of the exposure occurs before 01.01.1975 for a period of, or periods which amount in aggregate to 5 years or more

    or

    Where the exposure occurs from 01.01.1975, for a period of or periods which amount in aggregate to 10 years or more.

    The treatment for asbestos-related lung cancer is the same as that for lung cancer generally.

    Although treatment is decided individually for each patient, it is generally accepted that the earlier the diagnosis the better the outcome of the treatment.

    Early lung cancer can sometimes be cured by surgery and some forms of lung cancer can be treated with chemotherapy. Radiotherapy is often given to improve the symptoms of lung cancer.

    You can claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit from the DWP for asbestos-related lung cancer if you were exposed to asbestos at work.

    You can also claim compensation from your employer through the courts if you were negligently exposed to asbestos, or from the DWP if your employer is no longer trading.

    Mesothelioma

    Mesothelioma used to be a relatively rare cancer. It is also known as “diffuse” or “malignant mesothelioma”.

    It can affect the pleura (the lining of the lungs), and less commonly, the peritoneum (the lining of the abdomen).

    It can also affect the pericardium (the area around the heart). Although there are treatments which may slow the development of the disease, and promising research and clinical trials are going on to make them more effective, there is presently no known cure.

    This cancer can take more than 50 years to develop and is almost always associated with exposure to asbestos, which can in some cases be of short duration. Cigarette smoking does not cause mesothelioma.

    Unlike other asbestos diseases, mesothelioma is not ‘dose related’. It is possible to develop mesothelioma as a result of short periods of exposure to asbestos.

    People have died of mesothelioma as a result of living near to asbestos factories or living with someone who worked with asbestos and brought dust home on their clothes.

    An early sign of mesothelioma is an effusion (a build-up of fluid) in the pleural space around the lung or the peritoneal space in the abdomen that can cause pain and breathlessness.

    Sometimes it is very difficult to make a diagnosis of mesothelioma and more than one biopsy (a very small sample of tissue) is sometimes needed.

    However, the DWP specifically states that it is not justifiable for the purposes of benefit claims to require lung or pleural biopsies.

    Early studies indicate that immunotherapy may be a useful treatment for mesothelioma.

    Before it can become a standard treatment further evidence from clinical trials is necessary.

    There are various clinical trials open in the UK that include immunotherapy. There are helpful treatments that deal with the symptoms, such as removing fluid from the pleural space to relieve breathlessness.

    There is also a procedure known as ‘pleurodesis’, which may be carried out to prevent the fluid re-accumulating in the pleural cavity.

    Pain, which is often associated with this illness, can be controlled successfully.

    You can claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit from the DWP for mesothelioma if you were exposed to asbestos at work.

    You can also claim compensation from your employer through the courts if you were negligently exposed to asbestos, or from the DWP if your employer is no longer trading.