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How does asbestos cause lung cancer?

Asbestos exposure can increase a person's risk for lung cancer as well as a rare form of cancer in the lining of the lungs, called mesothelioma. Higher levels and a longer duration of asbestos exposure increase this risk (called a "dose-response" relationship). A person's risk for developing lung cancer from asbestos exposure is greatly increased if that person is also a smoker.

Asbestos can cause disease both inside the lung tissue and in the pleura (the lining on the outer surface of the lung and the inner surface of the chest wall). When someone breathes in asbestos fibers, they are trapped in the lung and can stay there. The presence of these fibers can lead to asbestosis, an inflammatory condition in the lung tissue, that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage. Over time, progressive inflammation and scarring develop which can affect breathing and result in lung tissue cells becoming malignant (cancerous).

Asbestos is a mineral that is made up of tiny fibers and can be found naturally in the environment. It was often used to make building materials in the United States. If a person is exposed to large amounts of asbestos, the fibers can eventually get stuck in their lungs and cause problems. These problems include damage to the cells that make up the lungs, as well as damage to the cells that line the chest and abdomen. Once these cells have been damaged, they might change and become a cancer. Cancers linked to asbestos are slow to develop, and it may be 15 to 30 years from the time asbestos accumulated in the lungs to the time the cancers are diagnosed.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.