What is asbestosis?

Updated: Apr 11, 2019
  • Author: Sam Chun, MD; Chief Editor: Eugene C Lin, MD  more...
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Asbestos is the generic term used for the group of fibrous mineral silicates of magnesium and iron whose chemical and physical properties make it ideal for a variety of commercial and industrial uses. Asbestos is derived from the Greek word meaning inextinguishable. Its natural resistance to heat and fire, as well as its tensile strength, flexibility, and insulating properties, has led to its use in more than 3000 applications, including floor tiles, boiler and pipe insulation, roofing, and brake lining.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace and 50% of the deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos. In 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). [7]

Asbestos is classified into 2 groups, based on its physical properties: the serpentines, which tend to be wavy and long, and the amphiboles, which are straight and rodlike. The most important member of the serpentines is chrysotile, which makes up more than 90% of the asbestos used in the United States. The amphibole group includes crocidolite, amosite, and tremolite, which is often found as a contaminant of chrysotile ore.

Three major diseases are associated with asbestos exposure: asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Pleural plaques are the most common manifestation of exposure. This article focuses on asbestosis, which specifically refers to the bilateral, diffuse, interstitial fibrosis of the lungs caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Imaging features of asbestosis are seen below.

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