Getting Health Checks for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Asbestos products were used in the building trade until about two decades ago because they were cheap and fire resistant. The use of asbestos was discontinued because of the health implications of inhaling asbestos fibres. However, some buildings may still contain previously installed materials made from asbestos.

Exposure to asbestos fibres presents the risk of certain health problems, which include asbestosis or scarring (fibrosis) of the lungs, diffuse thickening of the lung pleura, asbestos-related lung cancer and cancer of the inner lining of the chest wall or abdominal cavity, referred to as mesothelioma. 

Death from mesothelioma has been on the increase in Australia over the years, and according to the Australian Mesothelioma Registry, Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. Exposure to asbestos is dangerous because the fibres may not be visible and cannot be perceived by the sense of smell. It is therefore essential that persons who have had exposure to asbestos in the past should report to their doctor for asbestos testing if they have any ill-health symptoms.

The possibility of developing health problems from asbestos exposure depends on the degree and duration of exposure. Persons who have been frequently exposed or surrounded by visible asbestos dust are known to be more susceptible to asbestos-related diseases. The examining doctor will ask specific questions aimed at evaluating this information.

Persons afflicted with asbestos-related diseases may present with a variety of symptoms, depending on the severity and the organs affected. The most commonly affect organ is the lungs, and such persons often present with cough or shortness of breath. They may also have swelling of the legs or a widening and rounding of the fingertips, a sign described as finger clubbing.

An examination of the chest by the doctor may also reveal a build-up of fluid in the chest, described as pleural effusion, and crackling sounds may also be picked up by listening to the chest with a stethoscope. An x-ray of the chest is often diagnostic. Severe lung damage due to asbestosis shows a honeycomb picture on a chest x-ray. Lung cancer may be revealed by shadows on the x-ray, and thickening of the pleural covering of the lungs may also be picked up on a chest x-ray in persons suffering from mesothelioma.

More sophisticated testing may be required to confirm the diagnosis. Lung function tests and CT scans of the chest reveal greater details about abnormal structures in the chest and the degree of lung function impairment.

Samples of lung tissue are required for histopathological examination in order to establish a diagnosis of lung cancer. The samples are obtained by a specialist through a procedure referred to as bronchoscopy. Mesothelioma can be confirmed by making a small cut through the chest wall in order to obtain samples from the chest. The procedure is referred to as thoracoscopy.