Does Asbestos Cause Cancer and Exposure Symptoms to Watch Out For


According to the NHS, asbestos is “a group of minerals made up of microscopic fibres that were widely used in construction between the 1950s and 1990s”.

The use of asbestos was banned in 1999, so the risk of exposure is much lower today than it used to be.

However, many old buildings still contain building materials containing asbestos.

Contact with asbestos can be fatal, and more than 2,000 people die in the UK each year from illnesses related to the mineral.

Times Series: Asbestos is a group of minerals made up of microscopic fibers that were commonly used in construction between the 1950s and 1990s.Asbestos is a group of minerals made up of microscopic fibers that were commonly used in construction between the 1950s and 1990s. (Image: Getty Images)

Does asbestos cause cancer?

Simply put, yes, asbestos can cause cancer.

The British government classifies asbestos as a carcinogen, i.e. a substance, organism or material that can cause cancer.

The UK government adds: “Chronic exposure through inhalation at low doses can cause pleural disease, mesothelioma or lung cancer; chronic exposure through high doses can cause asbestosis.”

It is almost always the cause of mesothelioma, a type of cancer that develops in the lining of the outer surface of some body organs.

The NHS adds: “Mesothelioma mainly affects the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), although it can also affect the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneal mesothelioma), the heart or the testicles.”

Each year, more than 2,700 people are diagnosed with this form of cancer and unfortunately there is no cure.

Will smoking be banned in the UK?

This is because the tiny asbestos fibers can easily enter the lungs, where they get trapped and cause damage over time.

The NHS continues: “It usually takes a while for this to cause obvious problems, with mesotheliomas typically developing more than 20 years after asbestos exposure.”

Deaths from mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure

According to the NHS, there are currently around 2,500 deaths from mesothelioma in the UK each year.

The NHS said: “Unfortunately, the prognosis for mesothelioma is poor. This is because it does not usually cause visible symptoms until it is in an advanced stage and once the disease has reached this stage it can get worse quite quickly.”

Following the introduction of the ban in 1999, the number of deaths is expected to decline in the coming years.

Symptoms of mesothelioma

The symptoms of mesothelioma develop over time and typically do not appear until several decades after asbestos exposure, the NHS explains.

Symptoms of mesothelioma in the lung lining include:

  • Chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • Fatigue (extreme exhaustion)
  • High fever and sweating (especially at night)
  • Persistent cough
  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss
  • Drumstick fingers (swollen fingertips)

Symptoms of mesothelioma in the abdominal lining include:

  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Feeling sick or being sick
  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss
  • Diarrhea or constipation
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The NHS recommends that you see your GP if you regularly experience any of these or other worrying symptoms and tell them about any exposure you have had to asbestos.

If your GP suspects mesothelioma, he or she will refer you to a hospital specialist for a number of tests, including an X-ray, a CT scan, a fluid drainage procedure, or a thoracoscopy or laparoscopy.

The NHS adds: “These tests can help diagnose mesothelioma and show how far it has spread.”

Can mesothelioma be treated?

Treatment for mesothelioma depends on several factors, including how far the cancer has spread and your overall health.

The NHS explained: “Because mesothelioma is often not diagnosed until it is at an advanced stage, treatment usually focuses on controlling symptoms and prolonging life for as long as possible.”

“This is called palliative or supportive care.”

Other treatments may include:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • surgery
  • Immunotherapy

Other signs of asbestos exposure

Contact with asbestos can also cause asbestosis, a rare but serious lung disease.

Times Series: Asbestos is classified as a carcinogen by the British government.Asbestos is classified as carcinogenic by the British government. (Image: Getty Images)

Asbestosis cannot be cured, but treatment can relieve symptoms, the NHS said.

If you suffer from this disease, you may also be entitled to compensation.

Symptoms of asbestosis

Symptoms of asbestosis include:

  • shortness of breath
  • Persistent cough
  • Panting
  • Extreme tiredness (exhaustion)
  • Chest or shoulder pain
  • In more advanced cases, clubbing (swollen fingertips)


Symptoms of asbestosis only appear 20 to 30 years after asbestos exposure.

The disease is diagnosed through tests similar to those used for mesothelioma, including X-rays and CT scans.

Treatment for asbestosis may include pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy, and the use of an inhaler to ease breathing (for mild symptoms).