Study finds link between asbestos exposure, lung cancer and smoking

A recent study released by the American Thoracic Society and published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine has drawn a link between asbestos exposure, smoking and the development of asbestos-related lung cancer. Researchers showed that smoking cigarettes dramatically increased the rate at which workers previously exposed to asbestos developed lung cancer.

The study - led by Dr. Stephen Markowitz, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Queens College's School of Earth & Environmental Sciences - examined the medical records of 2,000 workers with long-term asbestos exposure and more than 50,000 workers whose occupations did not involve having regular contact with asbestos. The data showed that the combination of smoking, asbestos exposure and having developed the chronic lung condition asbestosis created a proverbial "perfect storm" of risk factors that resulted in a 37 times greater chance of developing lung cancer (when compared to those studied who didn't smoke and had no long-term asbestos exposure).

The study also found a correlation between quitting smoking and a decrease in cancer risk. Those who stopped smoking for a decade - even those afflicted with asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs that inhibits lung function) - were able to cut their chances of developing cancer in half. Once they had reached 30 years without smoking, they had the same chance of developing lung cancer as a fellow asbestos worker who had never smoked.

Asbestos-related diseases: notoriously hard to diagnose

There is no exact scientific consensus as to why there is such a dramatic increase in developing fatal lung cancer when asbestos-exposed workers also smoked, but the dangers of smoking are well-documented. Less well-known, however, is the physiological responses that cause some people with long-term asbestos exposure to develop debilitating medical conditions, while others with similar amounts of exposure seem to have minimal side effects.

There are myriad ways to theoretically explain the discrepancy, everything from genetic resistance to varying precautionary measures (like respirators) and from bad luck to the ventilation on the job site.

One possibility recognized by medical science is the fact that asbestos-linked diseases are notoriously hard to diagnose. This is due in no small part to the fact that common respiratory symptoms like difficulty breathing, persistent coughs, excess mucus production, fatigue and chest pains are not only markers of conditions like asbestosis, but are also seen in more pedestrian conditions like bronchitis, pneumonia, allergies and asthma. Because of this, it is entirely possible that there are millions more victims of asbestos-related conditions that simply don't understand the full extent of their illnesses, having been misdiagnosed.

Another diagnostic hurdle is the fact that diseases resulting from asbestos exposure develop not over a period of days like a common cold, but over years or even decades, making it difficult for even experienced doctors to make the causal link between lung issues today and working around asbestos 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.

Learning more

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with an asbestos-related condition like asbestosis? Do you need more information about holding the responsible parties - the ones who perpetuated the asbestos exposure - accountable for your injuries? Speak with an experienced personal injury attorney who has the unique knowledge and skill necessary to handle difficult asbestos injury cases.