Can Asbestos Exposure Cause COPD

COPD is the acronym for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an affliction characterized by chronic inflammation of tissues in the lungs leading to obstructed airflow.

Research has shown a correlation between asbestos exposure and COPD.  One study by the United States Department of Energy found that 18.9% of asbestos-exposed worker/insulator subjects had contracted COPD.  A broader meta-review of scientific research on lung function in asbestos-exposed workers found general agreement in the scientific literature that asbestos exposure causes restrictive as well as obstructive lung function impairment (a hallmark of COPD).

In short, it is very likely that asbestos exposure can cause COPD.

Additionally, some demographics are at higher risk of developing COPD due to asbestos exposure than others.  For example, one study found that women who lived near, but did not work, in a vermiculate mine had a higher risk of COPD than men in the same situation.  This may suggest that women are more sensitive to asbestos exposure in general, and experience higher risk of lung diseases like COPD as a result of asbestos exposure.

Research on the connection between asbestos and lung diseases like COPD is ongoing; however, many courts and the Veterans Administration (VA) have affirmed the connection by granting substantial settlements and benefits to workers and military personnel afflicted with COPD or associated lung conditions who demonstrated that they had been exposed to asbestos during the course of work or duty.

COPD and Lung Cancer

COPD is a condition characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Chest tightening
  • Throat clearing (mucus buildup in the throat)
  • Chronic cough
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Swelling in the lower extremities

The disease is generally diagnosed after significant damage has already been done to the lungs, for example as a result of prolonged asbestos exposure.

However, asbestos exposure is not the only cause of COPD.  In fact, the leading cause of COPD in developed countries is smoking, including exposure to second-hand smoke.  Other risk factors include occupational exposure to dust and chemicals other than asbestos, exposure to fumes from burning fuel, age, and genetics.

Crucially, COPD has been linked to malignant lung cancer.  One study concluded that “[t]he presence of moderate or severe obstructive lung disease is a significant predictor of incident lung cancer”—in other words, a diagnosis of COPD is a significant predictor of lung cancer.  This finding was corroborated in another study, which found that COPD is a “major cause of morbidity and mortality in developed countries.”  In short, although a patient is unlikely to die of COPD, the disease is very likely to progress further and develop into lung cancer—a disease with a much grimmer prognosis.