People often ask, “Is there a test for asbestos exposure?”
The answer is no.
When it comes to asbestos exposure, there isn’t a routine test available to test for related health conditions; however, there are several screening tools that can help your doctor pinpoint whether you are at risk.
Here we will answer some of the most common questions about asbestos exposure, overview the diagnostic process and review the most popular medical testing procedures that are used.
Who is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?
Asbestos exposure can happen anywhere: in school, on the job, or even at home.
Occupational exposure is the number 1 cause of asbestos disease. Workers who may come in contact with asbestos include:
- Factory workers
- Auto mechanics
- Shipyard workers
- S. military veterans
Asbestos exposure can lead to numerous health problems, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a rare and incurable version of lung cancer that is deadly.
How does Asbestos Exposure Happen?
Asbestos exposure usually occurs when asbestos products start to deteriorate or are cut or disturbed in any way. This causes microscopic asbestos fibers to become airborne. These fibers become inhaled or ingested, unknowingly. Once they are inhaled, they can become trapped in the respiratory tract for life.
Asbestos fibers in the lungs are dangerous. They often get lodged in the thin lining that surrounds the lungs and cause inflammation and scarring. This can lead to mutations and cancer.
Diagnosing asbestos exposure-related illnesses can be difficult. The reason it is difficult to diagnose is because asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma, have a long latency period – up to 20 years or more! Symptoms are not always apparent and when they first appear, they can be attributed to things like old age or being out of shape. Sometimes patients don’t even have any symptoms until their disease progresses into the later stages.
It is only through taking a comprehensive look at a person’s medical history, including their place of employment, culture, and environmental history, that any asbestos-related diseases may be suspected.
If the doctor has a reason to suspect a health condition caused by asbestos exposure, a few tools, screening techniques, and procedures can be used to help make a proper diagnosis.
How to Get Tested for Asbestos Exposure
Here are the different ways to test for asbestos exposure:
One of the most common tests, the chest X-ray, is usually the first tool to be used in identifying lung abnormalities.
While the test is unable to determine if the lung condition is asbestos-related, any form of mesothelioma like pleural, malignant or peritoneal will be easily revealed.
Other abnormalities which can be identified include:
- pleural plaques (which are opaque, discrete, elevated lesions)
- pleural effusions (could also be early signs of mesothelioma and need to be further evaluated)
- diffuse pleural thickening (early signs of high levels of asbestos inhalation)
While an x-ray can’t officially confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma, it can be a vital screening tool in obtaining an official diagnosis. If you can detect mesothelioma early, then the chances of survival can be increased.
Sometimes, minute asbestos fibers can also be revealed. X-rays are one of the safest ways to screen a person because they require the least amount of time under high energy x-rays.
MRI scans provide highly detailed scans of the body, which allow doctors to identify small tumors.
This is very useful when treating asbestos exposure related diseases, as it also cuts down on the need for surgery. As a result, MRIs can increase the chances of the patient surviving.
Diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis can show up clearly in an MRI scan as well. Although an MRI cannot officially diagnose mesothelioma, it can be a vital screening tool, and this detailed screening reduces the risk a misdiagnosis.
Pulmonary Function Tests
This is a group of non-invasive tests which serve the purpose of testing how a patient’s lungs work.
By monitoring how well a person can breathe and how effective their lungs are at delivering oxygen to the rest of the body, a doctor can identify potential problems. Often times, poor pulmonary function tests indicate the need for further testing, such as an MRI, X-ray or biopsy.
These examinations are pretty common and involve the doctor inspecting the body, listening to sounds, producing sounds by tapping on specific parts of the body, and feeling the patient’s body with their hands or fingers for any abnormalities. This is often the first screening test to be performed and can help the doctor determine which follow-up tests to order.
Examining a piece of lung tissue to look for asbestos fibers is a way to detect their presence.
However, a lung biopsy is not necessary for making a clinical diagnosis, and this technique is also unable to show the level of asbestos exposure or if there are signs of disease developing.
There are also other tests that are not as invasive, such as bronchoscopy, that can pick up on the presence of asbestos fibers or asbestos bodies in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid or in sputum.
Although not necessary to confirm the presence of asbestos exposure, a biopsy is necessary for getting a definite mesothelioma diagnosis.
A CT (Computed Tomography) scan allows a cross-section view of the lungs and chest.
This is achieved by rotating X-rays around the body, producing an image that allows doctors to tell the difference between densities that otherwise would not be distinct in conventional X-ray scans.
It is also able to provide more clarity around the density of tissue, giving more accurate assessments of the lesion sizes. The downside is extended exposure to the radiation.
If you believe you’re at risk of asbestos-related illnesses, it’s important to avoid or reduce as much as possible any continued contact with asbestos. Ensure that any asbestos in your living or working environment is well-insulated and not able to release any asbestos fibers.
As smokers are at a higher risk of developing asbestosis and lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure, it is strongly recommended that you quit smoking, & avoid inhaling second-hand smoke along with other lung irritants.
Seek out medical attention regularly, and consider getting vaccinated for lung-related illnesses like pneumonia and influenza.
While asbestos exposure is news nobody wants to hear, early detection of asbestos-related illnesses is key to healing and recovery.
With the various methods available to inspect the body for abnormalities, doctors can get a very accurate idea of any potential problems you may have.
If you have been exposed to asbestos on the job or in your home, it is important that you are checked periodically for asbestos-related disease. Early detection is vital to having a higher survival rate. Because the earliest symptoms often appear 15-50 years after exposure, it is important to have routine checkups, and notify your doctor if you notice any signs of asbestos-related disease.
Remember, detecting any early signs of exposure will make all the difference, and could save your life.