Asbestos-related diseases

A guide foir householders and the general public

Page last updated: 06 March 2013

When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may remain deep within the lungs. They can lodge in lung tissue and cause inflammation, scarring and some more serious asbestos-related diseases, which usually take many years, if not decades, to develop.

The four major asbestos-related diseases are shown opposite in increasing order of severity. A person may show signs of more than one of these diseases.

Pleural plaques

  • areas of white, smooth, raised scar tissue on the outer lining of the lung, internal chest wall and diaphragm
  • often the earliest sign of exposure to asbestos
  • not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos develops plaques, possibly because of differences in their immune response to asbestos fibres
  • people with pleural plaques as their only asbestosrelated symptom usually have very little impairment of lung function


  • a chronic condition caused by inflammation or scarring in the lungs
  • causes shortness of breath, coughing and permanent lung damage
  • caused by heavy, prolonged exposure to asbestos

Lung cancer

  • cancerous tumours that mainly occur in the lining of the tubes leading into the lungs, the smaller airways or the middle of the lungs
  • risk of developing lung cancer is increased in people who also smoke or have a pre-existing lung disease


  • a rare form of cancer of the tissue that lines the body cavities, particularly the chest and abdominal cavities
  • in Australia, about 90% of all mesothelioma patients have a confirmed history of significant asbestos exposure.