Can The Presence Of Asbestos Cause COPD?

As we write this article, the news of the fire in Maui and the devastation for the town of Lahaina, Hawaii is still fresh in our minds. With the fire having destroyed most buildings, we worry about the people searching for survivors and those who are searching through their burned-out homes. The possibility of asbestos in the air is very likely. We hope all are wearing masks as they go through the rubble.

The dangerous impact of asbestos on human health has been documented and publicized for decades. From personal experience, TV commercials, print advertisements, and government regulations, most people understand that there is at least some degree of danger associated with the substance. Efforts to implement a complete ban on asbestos manufacturing and use are ongoing, and success is likely.

While serious diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, ovarian cancer, and asbestosis are widely known to result from prolonged asbestos exposure, there is another disease which affects millions of Americans which also has ties to asbestos. A recent study found that exposure to asbestos in insulating materials increased the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in workers. Although other insulating materials were linked to increased risk of chest infections, asbestos was the only material associated with COPD.

About COPD. COPD is a general term for a group of diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that destroy lung tissue and reduce airflow to the lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 16 million Americans have been officially diagnosed with the disease. Millions more likely suffer from the disease but have not yet been diagnosed. It is the third leading cause of death by disease in the U.S.

What raises your risk of developing COPD? Tobacco smoke is the primary cause of COPD in the U.S. However, other factors also contribute to an elevated risk of developing COPD, including:

  • Lung irritants – including prolonged exposure to asbestos, air pollution, chemical fumes, excessive smoke, and second-hand smoke.
  • Changes to lung growth and development – diseases affecting the lungs while a baby is in utero or during childhood.
  • Infections – such as HIV or tuberculosis can increase the risk for COPD.
  • Family history – Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency raises the risk for lung and other diseases.
  • Asthma – about 1 in 5 people with asthma also develop COPD.

Does asbestos exposure cause COPD? Asbestos does not directly cause COPD. However, COPD can weaken the lungs and make them more vulnerable to the diseases associated with asbestos exposure. People with asbestosis or mesothelioma often develop COPD as well. Additionally, a person with COPD will also be more prone to the types of damage that can be caused by exposure to asbestos.

Can COPD be treated? Although there is currently no cure for the disease, there are treatments that can slow its progress and improve quality of life. Treatments include:

  • Quitting smoking – this is the most important step to take in slowing the disease.
  • Medications – including bronchodilators and bronchodilators + steroids.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation – like exercise training, health education, and breathing techniques.
  • Oxygen therapy – delivered through a tube to the nose or windpipe, or a face mask.
  • Surgery – often the last resort for people who do not respond to medication.
  • Lung transplant – surgery to remove a diseased lung and replace it with a healthy lung.

What is the correlation between asbestos and COPD? Asbestos exposure does not directly cause COPD, but it can increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. Further, COPD may weaken the lungs and make a person more susceptible to asbestos-related diseases. Several studies have reported a “statistically significant incidence of COPD among those exposed to toxic materials such as asbestos and silica.”

As with other diseases of the lungs, the best way to reduce the risk of developing COPD is to avoid exposure to harmful substances, including tobacco smoke and asbestos, as well as carbon dust, silica, beryllium, and chromium. If symptoms develop, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment improve the outlook for people diagnosed with COPD.



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