Can Asbestos Exposure Cause Bronchiectasis

Bronchiectasis, an incurable and potentially fatal disease, results when damage to the bronchial tubes (the airways that funnel air to and from the lungs) causes them to widen and thicken, and the cilia in the tubes (small hair-like structures that sweep phlegm and debris up and away from the lungs) are destroyed.  As a result, mucus and other debris accumulate in the bronchial tubes, resulting in obstruction to the airways.  This accumulation also creates a breeding ground for bacteria and other disease-causing organisms, resulting in substantially increased risk of infection in the respiratory system.

Several studies have found higher instances of bronchiectasis among asbestos-exposed workers.  This suggests that asbestos is one likely cause of or contributor to bronchiectasis.

Bronchiectasis Risk Factors

In addition to asbestos exposure, there are several other risk factors that have been linked to bronchial damage, including:

  • Childhood respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia, fungal infection, and whooping cough
  • Measles
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Young’s syndrome
  • Allergic bronchopullmonary aspergillosis
  • Primary ciliary dyskinesia, also known as Kartagener Syndrome
  • Compromised immune system
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Rheumatologic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Bronchiectasis is a degenerative, rather than acute disease.  It results from structural changes and weakening to the bronchial tubes and their components, and tends to get worse and worse over time.  This is aggravated by recurrent infections fostered by widening of the bronchial tubes and damaged cilia, which further weaken and damage the bronchial complex.

Bronchiectasis Complications and Treatment

In addition to repeated infections, complications from bronchiectasis can include low blood oxygen levels, respiratory failure, blood in the mucus or bloody sputum, and heart disease.

Although incurable, bronchiectasis is treatable.  If detected early, treatment can prevent further degeneration of the bronchial complex, stopping or slowing the progression of the disease.  Treatment includes corticosteroids for inflammation, mucolytics to thin bronchial mucus, antibiotics for infection, physical therapy and breathing therapy to promote secretion drainage, bronchial dilators to relax the muscles and open up the airways, and minor lifestyle changes including increasing water intake.

In more advanced cases, lung surgery or embolization may be called for.