The four main diseases caused by asbestos are mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and plural plaque. In this video, an expert explains the dangers of contact with asbestos, who is most at risk of exposure and what precautions to take.

Media last reviewed: 06/08/2014

Next review due: 06/08/2016

Health risk

Asbestos can be a very dangerous material. If it is undisturbed, it does not present a health risk. However, if materials that contain asbestos are chipped, drilled, broken or simply allowed to deteriorate – for example, due to exposure to weather – they release a fine dust that contains tiny asbestos fibres.

If someone breathes in the dust, the asbestos fibres enter the lung and can cause disease. For asbestosis to develop, prolonged exposure to relatively high numbers of the fibres is necessary.

Mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos, can occur after much less exposure. For this reason, all exposure to asbestos should be avoided if possible.

In 1970, strict regulations were introduced to regulate the use of asbestos in the workplace and limit an employee's exposure to it.

Read about preventing asbestosis for more information about the regulations.

Asbestosis is a chronic (long-term) lung condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is a soft, greyish-white material that does not burn. In the past it was widely used in building construction to protect against fire and as a form of insulation.

Symptoms of asbestosis

Breathing in asbestos dust can scar the lungs, which can lead to:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough

These symptoms usually begin many years after the initial exposure to asbestos. In most cases, the symptoms do not become apparent until 15 to 30 years after exposure.

Swollen fingers, known as finger clubbing, is a less common sign of asbestosis. It is usually associated with more advanced cases.

Asbestosis means the lung tissue has become scarred due to previous asbestos exposure. Pleural plaques or pleural thickening caused by asbestos are not the same as asbestosis. In these conditions, the membrane that covers the lungs (pleura) is damaged by asbestos, but the lungs themselves are unharmed.

Read more about the causes of asbestosis.


Asbestos is a general term that refers to a group of minerals made of long, crystalline fibres. Asbestos fibres are very strong and resistant to heat, electricity and chemicals. It was widely used in industries such as:

  • insulation
  • shipbuilding and railways
  • electricity generation
  • building and construction

There are three main types of asbestos:

  • crocidolite – blue asbestos
  • amosite – brown asbestos
  • chrysotile – white asbestos

All types of asbestos are hazardous, but blue and brown asbestos are much more dangerous than white asbestos. 

The most common type of asbestos for industrial use was white chrysotile asbestos. Amosite and crocidolite were banned in the 1980s, although voluntary bans on the industrial use of both of these materials came into force earlier than this. No crocidolite was imported into the UK after 1970. Chrysotile was not banned until 1999. There are still large amounts of all types of asbestos present in old buildings.

How common is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a relatively rare condition as it takes a considerable amount of exposure to cause it, and regulations to restrict exposure have been in place for more than 40 years. However, in 2009 there were 189 deaths caused by asbestosis. During 2010, 1,015 people were assessed for industrial injuries disablement benefit for the condition.

In contrast with the decrease in the number of cases of asbestosis, cases of mesothelioma are increasing and are not expected to reach their peak until 2013-16. Mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelial cells which make up the lining of the outer surface of organs including the lungs, heart and gut.

Mesothelioma can be caused by small amounts of asbestos exposure, which explains the difference in the number of cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma. This shows that the legislation introduced in 1970 to prevent high levels of asbestos exposure in the workplace helped to reduce the risk of asbestosis.

There are measures in place to help prevent future exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Read about preventing asbestosis for more details about this.

Treating asbestosis

There is no cure for asbestosis once it has developed because it is not possible to repair lung damage caused by asbestos. Some people with asbestosis find their condition progresses over time, although many do not.

The most important thing someone with asbestosis can do is to stop smoking (if they smoke). This is because the progression of asbestosis is more common in smokers compared with non-smokers. In cases of asbestosis, smoking also increases the risk of lung cancer.

Treatments, including oxygen therapy, can significantly improve the quality of life of someone with asbestosis.

Read more about treating asbestosis.

People with asbestosis have a higher risk of developing other serious conditions, such as those described below.

  • Lung cancer – one of the most common and serious types of cancer.
  • Mesothelioma – a type of cancer that affects the membrane that covers the lungs, heart and gut.
  • Pleural disease – the membrane that covers the lungs (pleura) becomes thicker. If the thickening is localised to a few patches, the condition is known as pleural plaques, which do not cause symptoms. However, if there is more thickening, it is known as diffuse pleural thickening. This can contribute to breathlessness and chest discomfort. Most people (about 95%) with asbestosis also have pleural thickening or pleural plaques.

Severe cases of asbestosis can place a significant strain on a person's health and shorten their life expectancy.

However, in many cases the condition progresses very slowly, or not at all. More people with asbestosis die as a result of one or more of the cancers mentioned above rather than from asbestosis itself.


If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis, you may be able to claim compensation. There are three main types of compensation, which are explained below.

  • industrial injuries disablement benefit – this is a weekly benefit that may be paid to people with asbestosis who were exposed to asbestos while in employment (but not self-employed)
  • it may also be possible to launch a civil claim for compensation through the courts – you will need to obtain legal advice about how to do this
  • you may be able to claim a lump sum in compensation under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 if you have asbestosis or you are the dependant of someone who has died from the condition, and you haven't been able to get compensation through the courts because the employer who exposed you (or the person on whose behalf you are claiming) has ceased trading

Read more information about industrial injuries disablement benefit on the GOV.UK website.

Page last reviewed: 11/09/2012

Next review due: 11/09/2014


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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

pizzachops said on 07 June 2013

This content is way out of date. Following tests by the HSE on chrysotile asbestos is now regarded as equally dangerous to health as blue and brown.

Asbestos in the building trade is still regarded as some kind of irelevance and the dangers posed as being wide of the mark. Yet each year we hear of colleagues or family members not reaching retirement because they have died from asbestos related diseases. It doesnt only include building workers it also includeds teaching staff or anyone
who works in older buildings where remedial work has been done over the years. Have you any idea for example what is in the dust above that nice new suspended ceiling facilities put in last week. Are you aware that the tiles they replaced may have contained asbestos?

But hey, as the NHS say here, numbers are going down so alls well. No worries here then!

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richardeortiz said on 29 November 2011


Really the post is awesome.Thanks for sharing such good post.Please can u tell me What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?

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