Exposure to asbestos dust and fibers causes many lung problems. Most people are aware of the fact that asbestos can cause mesothelioma (a deadly, malignant cancer that affects the lungs), increase the risk of lung cancer and cause a condition called asbestosis which is potentially fatal. Fewer people are aware of another result of asbestos exposure – pleural plaques.
Pleural plaques are small, slightly raised, thickened areas on the surface of the lungs caused by inhaled asbestos dust. They often appear on both lungs, and may calcify (harden) over time. The presence of pleural plaques is one of the most significant indicators of prior exposure to asbestos, which can be important in establishing the cause of other lung diseases. They are generally considered to be benign, and do not lead to or cause other complications of asbestos exposure. However, as an indicator of asbestos exposure, they can cause considerable emotional stress, since pleural plaques indicate a heightened risk of developing other, more malignant lung conditions related to asbestos exposure.
Symptoms of pleural plaques
Most reports consider pleural plaques to be asymptomatic – that is, they don’t cause symptoms. Many times, even after a diagnosis, people who have pleural plaques do not develop any symptoms. Others, however, may develop pain, which can be severe, if the plaques grow large enough or are located in an area where they begin to rub against the ribs during breathing. Pleural plaques can also cause shortness of breath and impaired lung function.
Cause of pleural plaques
Pleural plaques are caused by exposure to asbestos. Unlike other conditions caused by asbestos exposure, pleural plaques sometimes have a latency period of less than ten years. Other asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma and asbestosis have latency periods of 20 to 50 years. In addition, while most cases of mesothelioma and asbestosis are diagnosed in people who were exposed to asbestos daily over a long period of time, pleural plaques may appear in those who have had limited or intermittent exposure to asbestos.
Significance of pleural plaques
The presence of pleural plaques is regarded as an indicator of past exposure to asbestos. This can be important in establishing the cause of other more debilitating lung diseases, or in diagnosing asbestosis, mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer.
In addition, pleural plaques indicate that a person has had enough exposure to asbestos to be at higher risk for other asbestos-related diseases. Many people who develop pleural plaques never develop cancer, and there is debate as to whether they are a marker for mesothelioma. Some studies, including two reported in the Journal of American Industrial Medicine and in Chest, indicate that there is evidence that those who suffer from pleural plaques are at greater risk of developing malignant pleural mesothelioma. The study in the journal Chest also indicated that there was a possible increased risk of developing lung cancer as well. Because of this, people who have pleural plaques should be screened regularly for the development of other scarring associated with asbestosis, for lung cancer and for mesothelioma, to increase the chance of early diagnosis and treatment.
Diagnosing pleural plaques
Pleural plaques are often discovered when routine X-rays show opaque areas in the lower lungs. In some cases, a doctor may order X-rays or CT scans specifically to look for pleural plaques because someone has a history of asbestos exposure.
Related pleural conditions to pleural plaques
In addition to pleural plaques, asbestos may cause other benign (non-malignant) lung conditions. These include:
Pleural thickening (fibrosis)
A thickening of the lining around the lungs, it is often due to exposure to asbestos. Similar to pleural plaques, it is the result of scarring of the pleural tissue due to asbestos. It shows as thickened areas of scar tissue on the lining outside the lungs. Depending on the extent of the fibrosis, it may be asymptomatic, or it may considerably affect lung functioning.
Pleural effusion is an abnormal collection of fluids in the space around the lungs. The pleural cells normally exude a small amount of fluid to aid in lubrication during breathing. Exposure to asbestos can cause this fluid to be thicker, or the exudation to collect because the damaged cells don’t reabsorb the fluid as they should. Pleural effusions are not malignant, but they can cause significant symptoms, including fever, pain, tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing.
Pleural effusion is often associated with asbestosis, but can occur even in those who don’t have asbestosis. In the absence of asbestosis, episodes of pleural effusion are often transitory, and there’s no indication that those who have pleural effusion are at higher risk of developing asbestosis or mesothelioma.
Unlike other asbestos-related diseases, pleural effusions often result from short, intense exposures to asbestos, usually about 15 years after the exposure. They can be diagnosed as being asbestos-related by examining a sample of the fluid that has collected around the lungs, as it may contain asbestos. It is one of the few asbestos-related conditions that is often seen in younger people, often men in their 20s and 30s.
Pleural plaques generally do not require treatment, but regular check-ups are recommended to screen for other asbestos-related diseases.
If you have pleural plaques, pleural fibrosis or pleural effusions due to asbestos, you may be entitled to file a claim for compensation or seek damages to help with medical expenses. Over the past dozen years or so, judges and juries have recognized that pleural symptoms like effusions, scarring and plaques are a significant injury and hardship even in the absence of physical symptoms. Workers who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques face the knowledge that they have been exposed to a deadly toxin which may cause lung cancer, mesothelioma or other related diseases. They incur additional medical expenses for screening and treatment because of their condition, and must live with the fear of developing one of the more malignant conditions.
If you’ve had chest X-rays that show pleural plaques or pleural fibrosis, or if you’ve had pleural effusions, contact Williams Kherkher Law Firm to find out what your rights are in claiming compensation for your injuries.