Asbestosis is a chronic condition caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres – usually over an extended period.  

What is Asbestosis?

The condition refers to the scarring of lung tissue caused by the presence of microscopic asbestos fibres. Of the two types of fibres, serpentine (curved) and amphibole (straight), the latter causes the most damage to human tissue; its shape allowing it to embed itself deeply within tissue.

As the fibres infiltrate the lung tissue, where oxygen is transferred to the blood stream, the body’s immune system tries to digest them. Asbestos is strongly resistant to the attempts of the body to dissolve the fibres. The repeated efforts create a build-up of scar tissue on the lungs which eventually affect their ability to transfer oxygen to, and move carbon dioxide away from, the blood.

History of Asbestosis

Asbestosis was first diagnosed in Britain. Textile worker Nellie Kershaw presented to doctors suffering from respiratory problems. After learning of her occupation, doctors diagnosed the first case of disease due to workplace asbestos exposure. Her employers refused to recognise the link between asbestos and Kershaw’s symptoms. Throughout her palliative care they repeatedly ignored her claims for compensation. Even after her death her bereaved family’s claims for recompense were ignored.  

This set the tone for the rest of the 20th Century, whereby businesses that had (knowingly and unknowingly) placed workers in hazardous situations fought to deny the link between the material and the symptoms.

It is estimated that at least 100 000 US shipping industry workers have died, or will die, from illness related to asbestos exposure.  

Am I at risk from Asbestosis?

Generally, unless you work in an industrial setting where asbestos fibres are present in the air, you are not at risk. However asbestos is present in many homes. See here for advice about how to deal with asbestos in your home.