Asbestosis is a progressive crippling respiratory disease that was first found in naval shipyard workers. It is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres and usually strikes workers in the shipbuilding / ship repairing, textile, cement and insulating industries.
Serious asbestosis is usually caused by heavy exposure to large quantities of asbestos fibres. Either a sustained exposure over a period of years (e.g. a long time worker at an asbestos textile plant) and/or intense exposure for a shorter period (e.g. a worker in the boiler or engine rooms of ships under construction.) The specific type of asbestos fibre to which the worker was exposed does not seem to be significant in the development of asbestosis.
When airborne asbestos fibres are breathed in they become trapped in your lungs. The body tries to dissolve the asbestos fibres by producing acid. The acid does little to damage the asbestos fibres since they are very durable and chemically inert. Unfortunately the acid does cause irritation and inflammation of the cells in the lungs and may scar and thicken the surrounding tissue. Eventually a “fibrosis” or scar tissue develops in the spaces around the small airways and the tiny sacks at the end of your bronchial tubes called “alveoli”. The alveoli are where the oxygen from the air enters your blood, and the carbon dioxide from your body goes into the air. Alveoli are very tiny, but you have a lot of them in your lungs. The thickening and scarring caused by the asbestos fibres prevents oxygen and carbon dioxide from travelling between the alveoli and the blood cells, so breathing becomes much less efficient.
Over a period of many years this damage may become so severe that the lungs cannot function. The “latency period”, that is to say the time it takes for the disease to develop, is very long (25 to 40 years).
The symptoms of asbestosis typically include shortness of breath, coughing, a dry crackling sound while inhaling and chest pain.
However not all of these symptoms might be apparent straight away. Asbestosis is a slow progressing disease that may show no symptoms for 10 to 30 years. Once the process of inflammation and scaring of the lungs has been started by the asbestos fibres the disease can continue to progress even after the exposure to asbestos has ceased. As the disease progresses, the symptoms can worsen. Shortness of breath may initially only be experienced only during heavy exertion. However, over time it may be produced by lower levels of exertion and then start to interfere with the ability to carry out everyday activities. Eventually the individual may require oxygen. In unusual cases the condition can even prove fatal.
The scarring and thickening of the tissues of the lungs cause by asbestos fibres can be seen on x-rays and CT scans which will show a typical fibrotic pattern. There are added chest sounds also called rales, crackles or crepitations that can be heard with a stethoscope. A breathing, or respiratory function, test (sometimes called a “pulmonary function test” or “PFT”) may also be carried out to check whether the functioning of the lungs has been reduced. It can be conclusively identified by taking samples of lung tissue (called a “biopsy”).
Asbestosis affects both lungs (it is “bilateral”) and, although it is mainly in the lower fields of the lungs, it is usually widespread (“diffuse”.)
At the moment there is no cure or effective treatment for asbestosis. However some measures can be taken to slow the progression of the disease and prolong life.
Asbestosis itself is not a cancerous lung disease. However, people with asbestosis should stop smoking immediately because people with asbestosis are much more susceptible to lung cancer. There is also a high risk of developing another serious asbestos related condition called mesothelioma.
You may be entitled to Department For Work And Pensions (“DWP”) benefits. Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit is payable to those who suffer a disability caused by a disease accepted by the DWP as being due to occupation. Asbestosis is Prescribed Disease D1.
If you are unable to sue your former employer because, for example, they have ceased to trade, then you still may be able to claim under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 which provides a scheme under which qualifying employees are entitled to a one-off lump sum payment .
Although provisional damages are available it is more usual for the courts to deal with asbestosis claims on a full and final basis. In addition to an award for pain, suffering and loss of amenity a claimant may also be able to claim for loss of past and future earnings, the cost of specialist care, care provided by the claimant’s family, special needs, such as the cost of a stair lift, or special shower or bed.
Call Philip Thompson, Mark Thompson, Jacqueline Rafferty or Helen Roberts free on 0800 7313982
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