We know that when asbestos fibers are released into the air and are inhaled, they can lead to serious diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis. But what happens in between that inhalation and the diagnosis of a disease? How do those fibers cause mesothelioma?
When a person inhales asbestos fibers, they are deposited in the upper and lower respiratory tracts, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [Click to Tweet] Because the fibers are so durable, they can hold up for long periods of time in lung tissue and other parts of the body.
Ironically, inhaling larger asbestos particles imposes less of a risk of depositing in the lungs. This is because larger particles often settle on the nasal mucosa or the oropharynx, where they are then sneezed out or swallowed, and therefore never touch the lungs. Smaller particles, however, are often deposited on the surface of the larger airways or even further down in the lung.
The CDC states that the size of asbestos fibers determines “how far into the lungs it is likely to be deposited and how quickly it is cleared.” [Click to Tweet] Even though larger fibers are more likely to be cleared, it’s important to note that all levels of asbestos exposure are dangerous, regardless of the size of the fibers.
Once inside the lungs, while the body tries to get rid of the foreign substance, it’s not always successful. Asbestos fibers can easily make their way to the lungs and remain there for years. [Click to Tweet] Sometimes fibers can migrate towards the pleural and peritoneal cavities, where they can become lodged. This can lead to pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma.
The half-lives of asbestos fibers can vary, but some are retained in the lungs for decades. Asbestos in the lungs can lead to inflammation as well as cell and tissue damage, which can lead to non-malignant and malignant diseases like mesothelioma. This correlates with the latency period of mesothelioma, as some people are exposed to asbestos 20, 30 or even 40 years before they are diagnosed with the disease.