The mineral fiber asbestos featured prominently in many industries after World War II, largely due to its insulation and fire-resistant properties. While very effective as an insulator and a fire retardant, asbestos had a massive shortcoming: inhalation led to countless cases of fatal disease.

Unfortunately, these devastating health effects are still being seen today, even though the widespread use of asbestos began to tail off considerably in the 1970s. This is because of the long latency period of asbestos disease. Those exposed to asbestos do not fall ill until 15 to 50 years following meaningful exposure to the mineral.

Asbestos exposure can cause both malignant (cancerous) and benign (non-cancerous) diseases.

Below is a breakdown and brief discussion of malignant asbestos-related diseases.


Asbestos exposure is the generally accepted and most common cause of mesothelioma, an especially deadly cancer that most commonly affects the lining of the lungs (pleural lining) or stomach (peritoneal lining). When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can migrate from the lung and stomach tissues to the surrounding linings of these vital organs, where they remain and cause cancer. No matter the site, mesothelioma can be notoriously difficult to treat.

Initial symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • back pain or chest pain under the rib cage,
  • persistent, painful coughing,
  • shortness of breath, and
  • unexplained weight loss.

Initial symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:

  • abdominal pain and swelling, and
  • unexplained weight loss.

In rare cases, the heart (pericardial lining) may be affected. Chest pain and difficulty breathing are often the initial symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma.

Lung Cancer

Asbestos-caused lung cancer develops in the tissue of the lung itself (the lung parenchyma). Asbestos is a powerful carcinogen; exposure to asbestos alone increases the risk of developing lung cancer by 5 times. However, people with a history of smoking and asbestos exposure can be as many as 50 times more likely to develop lung cancer.

Initial symptoms of lung cancer often include:

  • a persistent cough,
  • pain in the chest or bones,
  • coughing up blood,
  • headaches,
  • hoarseness,
  • shortness of breath, and
  • unexplained weight loss.

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer develops in the esophagus, the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. Of the variants of esophageal cancer, adenocarcinoma is the type associated with asbestos exposure, arising in the gland cells at the bottom of the esophagus.

Initial symptoms of esophageal cancer may include:

  • chest pain,
  • persistent coughing or hoarseness,
  • trouble swallowing, and
  • unexplained weight loss.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer refers to cancer that begins in the colon or rectum. Both colon and rectal cancers affect the large intestine. This is the last part of the digestive system, which breaks down food for the body to use. As with esophageal cancer, adenocarcinomas of the colon can be caused by asbestos exposure.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include:

  • a change in stool, including frequency, consistency, or color,
  • a feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty all the way during a bowel movement,
  • blood in the stool,
  • diarrhea or constipation,
  • ongoing abdominal pain,
  • unexplained anemia or iron deficiency,
  • unexplained weight loss, and
  • tiredness.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer can develop in one or both ovaries, as well as the fallopian tubes. Asbestos exposure has been linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer, particularly among women who have used asbestos-contaminated talcum powder.

Initial symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:

  • bloating,
  • frequent urination,
  • loss of appetite,
  • pelvic or abdominal pain, and
  • unexplained weight loss.

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