Mesothelioma and asbestosis are diseases caused only by inhaling asbestos dust and fibre. However, they are very different conditions.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer. In Australia, about 700 people a year are diagnosed with mesothelioma.
The most common form of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma affects the pleura, a membrane (or lining) surrounding the lungs. The second most common type of mesothelioma is peritoneal mesothelioma. Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the peritoneum, a membrane that lines the abdomen around the stomach and other organs. Mesothelioma may also, rarely, occur in other membranes around the body.
There is no cure for mesothelioma. However, treatments have improved significantly over the last years, which means that for many sufferers, their life expectancy and quality of life have improved.
Smoking does not cause mesothelioma.
There is no minimum level of exposure to asbestos where there is no risk of developing mesothelioma. There is a long latency, generally 15 years between exposure and the development of the disease, and often as long as 50 years or more.
Asbestosis is not cancer. Asbestosis is a chronic condition where lung tissue scars and becomes fibrotic. The main symptom of asbestosis is shortness of breath.
Asbestosis symptoms can range from mild to severe. Asbestosis can sometimes progress and can be fatal.
Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis. Pulmonary fibrosis can occur for a range of reasons (or for no reason at all).
Unlike mesothelioma, asbestosis requires a substantial amount of asbestos exposure. Short exposures cannot cause the disease. As a result, asbestosis is almost always an industrial disease. This means sufferers worked with asbestosis materials over an extended period. However, there have also been cases of asbestosis in women who washed the clothes of husbands or children who worked with asbestos.
Smoking does not cause asbestosis. However, smoking may increase the risk of a person developing asbestosis.
The latency period for asbestosis (i.e., the time between exposure and the development of the disease) is generally at least ten years; however, it can be much longer.
Other diseases caused by asbestos
In addition to mesothelioma and asbestosis, asbestos causes a range of other conditions, including:
- Asbestos-related lung cancer: Asbestos is a known cause of lung cancer. Where a person has been a smoker and exposed to asbestos, the risk of developing lung cancer is significantly greater than the risk that arises from either of these risk factors alone. Unlike mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer only arises when a person has had a substantial period of asbestos exposure.
- Other cancers: Asbestos is a cause of several other types of cancer, including laryngeal and ovarian cancer. It is also potentially a cause of several other types of cancer. Claims for compensation for these cancers caused by asbestos are less common but can be pursued.
- Asbestos related pleural disease (ARPD): ARPD is a range of conditions, including thickening and hardening of parts of the pleural membrane, as well as pleural effusions. ARPD often prevents the lungs from being able to expand in the same way and can lead to pain and shortness of breath. Like Asbestosis, ARPD is not cancer but can be progressive and lead to severe disability.
- Pleural plaques: Pleural plaques are small, calcified deposits on the pleural. They are a common consequence of asbestos exposure but are generally not disabling. Whereas all sufferers of all the other conditions listed above are generally able to obtain compensation, pleural plaques do not normally lead to compensation as they do not involve any pain or disability.