Smoking and Asbestos Exposure

Of more than 4,000 chemicals in cigarettes, over 60 are known to cause cancer in humans. Breathing in these chemicals, either first or second hand, damages every organ in your body. Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral known to cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Exposure to asbestos is most common in work environments related to construction and renovation, automotive repair, and ship-building. The danger of asbestos exposure is heightened by its minuscule size and extraordinarily long latency period, which is between 10 and 40 years. If asbestos is in the air you breathe, the fibers may stay in your lungs for a lifetime. Contact an experienced asbestos attorney immediately if you suspect that you have developed an exposure-related illness.

Exposure to asbestos in combination with smoking increases lung cancer, though the extent is not yet known. Asbestos fibers cause the lung tissue to scar, making it difficult for air to pass through the lungs and clean out any dangerous chemicals, such as cigarette smoke. Studies have suggested that asbestos fibers may absorb the carcinogenic chemicals present in cigarettes, increasing the amount of these substances in the lungs.

Asbestosis is not a cancer, but cigarette smoking highly increases the risk and effects of the disease. For example, studies conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the death rate from asbestosis was found to be 2.8 times higher in asbestos-exposed smokers than in asbestos-exposed nonsmokers. Evidence of increased frequency of clinical signs of asbestosis (rales, dyspnea, crepitations) in smoking versus nonsmoking workers has been observed, as has a synergistic effect of smoking on the occurrence of dull organ tissue in the lungs of asbestos workers.

When a cigarette smoker is exposed to asbestos, his/her risk of lung cancer increases by 50 to 84 times. The longer you are exposed to asbestos, and the higher the amount of the exposure, the greater your chances for getting lung cancer. Compared to nonsmokers, men who smoke are about 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer and women who smoke are about 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer. Studies have confirmed how the risk of developing lung cancer multiplies with exposure to both asbestos and cigarette smoke.

The most dramatic data include an age-standardized mortality ratio of 5.17 for nonsmoking asbestos workers, 10.85 for smokers not exposed to asbestos, and 53.20 for asbestos-exposed smokers. Cigarette smoke irritates air passages, causing them to produce more mucus. These effects block the passage of air and further decrease the removal of asbestos fiber from the lungs.

On the assumption that cancer is a multistep process, asbestos and smoking could interact by affecting different steps in the process. An interaction of this sort between asbestos and the chemicals in cigarettes has been demonstrated in a two-stage study. Asbestos and chemical carcinogens may act cooperatively to cause cell transformation from normal to abnormal in lung, which is proposed to be involved in tumor development.

A report by the Surgeon General highlights some of the immediate to long-term health benefits of quitting, including:

  • Your heart rate lowers just 20 minutes after quitting.
  • Carbon monoxide blood levels drop to normal after 12 hours.
  • The risk of heart disease reduces by half after 1 year of quitting and after 15 years of not smoking the risk is nearly the same as someone who has never smoked.
  • Two weeks to 3 months after quitting, lung function starts to improve. The risk of lung cancer decreases by one-half after 10 years of not smoking.
  • The risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus decreases by one half after 5 years of not smoking.
  • Once you quit smoking, nearly every organ in your body will experience benefits.

In contrast to the interactive effect of smoking on lung cancer and fibrosis, smoking does not appear to increase the risk of mesothelioma. If you have questions about the interaction between smoking or other chemicals and asbestos, contact an asbestos attorney at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm.

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