Where Does The U.S. Stand on Asbestos & COPD?

Human lungs in red

It seems we hear a lot about COPD lately. COVID may have brought more attention to the disease. Here is some information on both asbestos and COPD and how they are related.

The harmful properties of asbestos were identified as early as the 1920s, when a British doctor noted that asbestos can cause lung “fibrosis.” However, it took another fifty years before the mining and manufacturing of asbestos in the United States fell under heavy regulation. Its harmful effects on human health have long been connected to serious diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, ovarian cancer, and asbestosis.

A 2020 study investigating the effects of occupational exposure to asbestos 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.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 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. 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 causes COPD?

Tobacco smoke is the primary cause of COPD in the U.S. However, other factors such as air pollutants, genetic factors, and respiratory infections also contribute to a lesser extent.

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.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

According to the CDC, the most common symptoms include:

  • Frequent coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excess phlegm, mucus, or sputum production
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath

People with COPD may also experience chest tightness; swelling in ankles, feet, and legs; weight loss; lower muscle endurance; and getting sick often with cold or flu. Indirect symptoms such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, depression, and/or reduced quality of life are also possible.

How is COPD treated?

Although there is currently no cure for the disease, there are treatments that can slow its progress and improve a patient’s quality of life. Treatments include:

  • Lifestyle changes (especially, quitting smoking)
  • Medications
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Surgery

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.”

Remember, the best way a person can reduce their risk of developing COPD is to avoid exposure to harmful substances, including tobacco smoke and asbestos. Other harmful substances include 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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