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Asbestos-related diseases


Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous silicate mineral. Exposure to asbestos fibres in the air can cause a range of lung diseases, diseases of related tissue, asbestosis and mesothelioma—a form of cancer which is usually fatal.

Until a national ban on the importation, manufacture and use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos containing products began in December 2003, it was used in a wide range of industries, materials and products because it can be woven into fabric, has excellent insulation properties and is chemically inert. As knowledge of its health dangers increased, the use of asbestos was progressively prohibited until the ban finally came into force.

Asbestos dust or fibres that are inhaled can cause scarring (fibrosis), infection (effusion) or interaction with a person’s immune system (attempted ingestion by macrophages, or white blood cells) leading to genetic damage with resulting carcinomas.

Inhalation of asbestos dust or fibres may occur from handling asbestos—or materials containing asbestos—without wearing a respirator, face mask or other personal protective equipment. Some people appear more susceptible to asbestos-related conditions than others with similar exposures.

What is a dust disease (pneumoconiosis)?

Pneumoconiosis is the reaction, and resultant structural alteration, of the lungs to inhaled mineral or organic dusts or fibres.

In certain occupations, prolonged exposure to dusts, fibres, fumes or other noxious substances can trigger an inflammatory response in lung tissues and may lead to diffuse scarring (pulmonary fibrosis). Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, asbestosis and silicosis are common types of pneumoconiosis. The main symptom of pneumoconiosis is breathlessness on exertion, although there are often no symptoms in the early stages.

The most significant diseases caused by exposure to dust are:

Asbestos diseases

  • Asbestosis—a fibrotic disease of the lungs caused by chronic exposure and inhalation of asbestos fibres. Asbestosis diffusely affects the lungs, predominantly damaging the interstitium (the connective tissue between airspaces). The lungs become fibrotic and stiff.
  • Asbestos induced carcinoma of the lung—often referred to as bronchogenic carcinoma. It is recognised as being one of the most common complications of asbestos exposure.
  • Asbestos-related pleural disease—a process that usually begins with an inflammation of the pleura that leads to fluid collecting in the space between the lung and the chest wall. This is also commonly referred to as benign asbestos-related pleural effusion.
  • Pleural mesothelioma—the most common type of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that develops in the lungs. It is almost solely caused by exposure to asbestos
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma—accounts for 10 to 20 per cent of all mesothelioma cases. The cancer develops in the abdomen over a course of decades after asbestos fibres are inhaled or ingested.
  • Pleural plaques—areas of calcification on the lining of the lungs, chest wall, and diaphragm.

Other dust conditions

  • Aluminosis
  • Bagassosis
  • Berylliosis
  • Byssinosis
  • Coal dust pneumoconiosis
  • Cryptococcosis
  • Farmers’ lung
  • Hard metal pneumoconiosis
  • Occupational asthma
  • Progressive Massive Fibrosis
  • Silicosis
  • Silico-tuberculosis
  • Talcosis

(Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.)

Comcare and asbestos-related claims

Comcare administers two schemes for managing claims made by persons diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, and their dependents. The schemes are established by the following enactments:

All claims are managed under Comcare’s Asbestos-Related Claims Management Model.

Page last updated: 20 Jun 2018