Can Asbestos Exposure Cause Emphysema

Although there is no evidence definitively linking asbestos exposure directly with emphysema, there is much evidence to suggest such a connection.

Studies of HCT scans of patients diagnosed with asbestosis (a lung disease resulting from inhaling asbestos) have shown from 10% to 36% of these patients exhibit emphysema.  In comparison, roughly 1.5% of the general American population was diagnosed with emphysema in 2011.  Although it is likely that many emphysema sufferers are undiagnosed, the substantial difference between the rates of emphysema among these two populations suggests that asbestosis patients are more likely to suffer from emphysema.

Another study of Finnish construction workers found that emphysema was more common among workers also suffering from asbestosis or were heavily exposed to asbestos through their job.

Emphysema is most often associated with cigarette smoking; however, a study has shown the presence of emphysema in asbestos-exposed non-smokers.

Although there is not yet enough scientific evidence to definitively conclude that asbestos exposure causes emphysema, it is almost certainly the case that asbestos exposure exacerbates the negative symptoms of emphysema.  For example, one study found the factor most contributing to functional impairment in the lungs of asbestos-exposed smokers was the presence of emphysema.

The dearth of research on the relationship between asbestos exposure and emphysema makes it difficult to draw conclusions about comorbid instances of these conditions—indeed, this has proven to be an ongoing headache for judges, juries, and workers’ compensation boards tasked with determining liability and damages in compensation cases.  There is as yet no established legal standard as to how to deal with asbestos-related claims in patients with emphysema, and decisions are made based on the specific facts on a case-by-case basis.