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COPD & Asbestos

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COPD & Asbestos

Asbestos exposure has been proven to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma. There is increasing evidence that exposure may also cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD as it is commonly known. COPD is one of the most frequent forms of lung disease.

What is COPD?

COPD is actually an umbrella term for two medical conditions that cause breathing difficulties:

  • Chronic bronchitis is the continuous inflammation of certain airways in the lungs called the bronchi that leads to a persistent cough with mucus.
  • Emphysema is the gradual destruction of the air sacs in the lungs that leads to shortness of breath.

Most COPD patients develop a combination of both conditions.

What causes COPD?

The most common cause is smoking, followed by exposure to secondhand smoke. Inhalation of toxic fumes in the workplace is another cause. However, there is increasing clinical research that suggests that COPD may also be caused by exposure to asbestos.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

Patients who develop COPD do not experience symptoms immediately. In fact, when symptoms do appear, the disease is usually advanced. The following list includes some of the most common symptoms:

  • Chronic cough, usually with mucus, but can also be dry
  • Fatigue
  • Respiratory infections that keep coming back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing

How is COPD diagnosed?

If it is suspected that a patient has COPD, the doctor will probably begin with an examination in which a stethoscope is used to listen to lung sounds. However, this is not a definitive test for the disease because the lung may continue to sound normal even in the presence of COPD.

This examination can be followed up with chest x-rays and CT scans. These also fail to provide definitive evidence of the presence of COPD because the lung may continue to appear normal.

The tests that are usually administered to determine the presence of the disease are:

  • Arterial blood gas is a blood test that measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
  • Spirometry is a test in which the patient is asked to blow as hard as they can into a machine that measure lung capacity.

How is COPD treated?

There is no cure for this disease, but there are several standard treatments to alleviate symptoms:

  • Inhalers may be prescribed to open the airways
  • Inhaled steroids may be given to reduce inflammation
  • Oral anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed

During those periods when the condition worsens, the patient may require:

  • Oral or intravenous steroids
  • Bronchodilators
  • Oxygen therapy
  • The use of a breathing machine
  • Antibiotics to reduce possible infection

Research Suggests Occupational Exposure to Asbestos May Cause COPD

In an article titled “Airways Obstruction among Older Construction and Trade Workers at Department of Energy Nuclear Sites”, published March 2010 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, researchers observed 7,579 current and former employees of the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons facilities to determine their level of risk for COPD as a result of their exposure to a variety of toxic substances in the workplaces that included asbestos.

Not only did they discover that these exposures put the employees at increased risk, but the researchers also found that there was a significant increase in risk associated with asbestos.

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