What is the Difference Between Asbestosis and Mesothelioma?

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What is the Difference Between Asbestosis and Mesothelioma?
LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott
Legally reviewed by: LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott Updated: In: Industrial Disease

Exposure to asbestos can have life changing consequences even years after initial exposure. This article looks at the difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma and what it means for those seeking legal support.

A Background to Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

According to a recent report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), over 5,000 asbestos related deaths take place every year in Great Britain. In 2021, 2,200 of these deaths were attributed to mesothelioma. Furthermore, a similar number died due to lung cancer attributed to exposure to asbestos.

Further reports from HSE released last November show that 12,000 workers in Great Britain are reporting suffering from occupational lung disease (new or long-term) over 2022/2023. Many of these cases are relating to asbestosis and mesothelioma linked to past exposure to asbestos.

In 2024, the risk of asbestos is widely acknowledged, 25 years on from the banning of asbestos in 1999. However, for many people the ban came too late with asbestos first being used in UK as early back as the late 1870s and the earliest recorded asbestos related death being 1924.

Why Was Asbestos Used for So Long?

Despite the life-threatening consequences, asbestos was used for so long due it’s effective insulation and heat resistant properties. This made it suitable to protect against fire and insulate pipes, boilers, and heating ducts. Additionally, it was used in ceilings, floor tiles, wall linings, interior wall paint and fireplaces. In some cases, especially regarding buildings that have not been updated since the 90s, asbestos can be found still present.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

Asbestos becomes dangerous when the fibres become airborne. This can happen when the asbestos is disturbed by cutting, drilling, or breaking the material containing asbestos. When the fibres are inhaled, they cause damage to the lungs, even with very little exposure.

Exposure to asbestos can result in several conditions. However, the main two are called asbestosis and mesothelioma. Although the conditions are both caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres, both differ in terms of their symptoms and prognosis.

What is Asbestosis?

Asbestos is a chronic lung condition caused by exposure to prolonged high levels of asbestos fibres. When the asbestos fibres are inhaled they cause scarring and tissue damage to the lungs (known as fibrosis). As a result, it is harder for the lungs to function effectively.

Asbestosis can be caused by the lungs gradually becoming injured by the fibres over a prolonged exposure. The longer you are exposed to the fibres, the more severe the condition can be if it develops.

In many cases it can take a prolonged period before the symptoms start to show. A typical latency period can be between 10 and 40 years.

There is currently no cure to asbestosis due to the scarring of the lung tissue, however steps can be put in place to manage the symptoms.

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. However, where it differs to asbestosis, is that mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer. It occurs in the membrane that surrounds some of the body’s organs (including, lungs, stomach, testicles, and heart).

According to data on the NHS website, mesothelioma is commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 75. Men are also more commonly affected than women.

In most cases, mesothelioma takes 40 years to present symptoms. However, it is possible for this to take place just 10 years after first exposure.

Like asbestosis, there is currently no cure for mesothelioma, although there are treatments available that help to control symptoms. In recent years, great advancements have taken place to treat mesothelioma.

What is the Difference Between Asbestosis and Mesothelioma?

The main difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma is that asbestosis is the scarring of the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis) and mesothelioma is a type of cancer.

Despite both being caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres, the damage caused differs. Asbestosis is caused by tissue damage, resulting in scarring. Alternatively mesothelioma occurs when the cells of an organ’s membrane are damaged, leading them to become cancerous.

Because mesothelioma is often found in the lungs it can present similar symptoms to asbestosis including:

  • Breathlessness
  • A persistent cough
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

However, as mesothelioma can also present in the abdominal area, the heart, or the testes, you should also be aware of symptoms such as:

  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Feeling or being sick
  • Stomach pain or swelling
  • Swelling the face, abdomen, or arms

Due to a long latency period between exposure and visible symptoms, getting a diagnosis is not always straight forward. This means it is common for mesothelioma to be identified once the cancer has reached an advanced stage. Therefore, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as you get any combination of the above symptoms and believe you have previously been exposed to asbestos.

Differences in Diagnosis

Both mesothelioma and asbestosis diagnoses involve a series of investigations. This can include chest x-rays and CT scans to investigate the damage.

During an asbestosis diagnosis, a doctor may carry out a lung-function test. This will help them assess how well your lungs are able to hold air and transfer oxygen to your blood.

During a mesothelioma diagnosis, a doctor may carry out an ultrasound scan, biopsies, and an analysis of samples of pleural or peritoneal fluid. Furthermore, if you receive a mesothelioma diagnosis, it will be graded on a scale of 1 to 4. This is in line with the International Mesothelioma Interest Group (IMIG) staging system to signify how advanced the mesothelioma is.

Differences in Treatment

Although there are no known cures for mesothelioma and asbestosis the following treatments can help manage symptoms.

For asbestosis:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Keeping up to date with vaccinations
  • Regularly monitoring the asbestosis through x-rays and lung function tests
  • Steroids or oxygen (if the asbestosis worsens)

Although asbestosis is irreversible, with the right management the disease may not progress.

For mesothelioma:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Immunotherapy

Treatments and clinical trials change often. Therefore, it’s important to speak to your consultant about what your treatment options are.

Seeking Help and Legal Support for Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

Charities

Receiving an asbestosis or mesothelioma diagnosis can be an isolating or difficult time, which is why there are a number of charities and organisations who are able to support anyone impacted by asbestos related conditions.

These include but are not limited to:

Government Backed Benefits

Furthermore, there are several Government-backed benefits available to anyone suffering from asbestosis or mesothelioma. Some of the following benefits may be applicable:

Seeking Compensation

In addition to Government benefits, you may be entitled to compensation. At AWH, our solicitors specialise in offering legal assistance tailored specifically to those who have suffered from lung disease due to negligent health and safety standards at work.

Our personal injury claims solicitors are here to help you receive compensation for any pain, suffering and financial losses you have experienced as a result of exposure to harmful substances. Our team can also help you raise a claim on behalf of a loved one that has passed away due to occupational lung disease.

It’s important to get in contact with a solicitor as soon as possible, due to the 3-year limitation period. The 3-year period starts from the date you were first diagnosed with the disease, and not the date you were exposed to the harmful substances.

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