More feared by smokers than even lung cancer is emphysema, which is an "obstructive pulmonary disease" that in addition to tobacco use is caused by long-terms exposure to a number of toxic chemicals. In essence, the lungs lose their elasticity, becoming stiff; this in turn leads to the collapse of small airways during exhalation, trapping stale air in the alveoli (air sacs).
Signs and Symptoms
Outward signs of the disease include:
- purse-lipped breathing
- a bluish tinge of the skin of the hands (cyanosis)
- clubbed fingers
- flapping wrist tremors (asterixis)
Other symptoms consist of:
- resonance when the chest is tapped
Emphysema is the result of an inflammatory response to toxic gases in the alveoli; chemicals that are released during this inflammation cause a breakdown, severely compromising lung function over time. Ultimately, the patient cannot get sufficient oxygen; the heart muscle begins to thicken and less efficient, resulting in the backup of blood in the liver.
Mild cases can get progressively worse over a relatively short period of time - in some cases, seven days.
A Finnish study published in 2004 found that insulation workers who had been diagnosed with asbestosis often suffered from emphysema as well; however, the researchers failed to find a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Some medical researchers believe there is a connection between emphysema and cancer of the viscera, known as mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure. Again however, there is some controversy as to whether mesothelioma cancer and emphysema indeed have a connection.
Like mesothelioma disease, emphysema is a degenerative disease with no known cure. Progression of the disease can be slowed by removing the patient from the toxic environment and/or cessation of smoking. Treatments include the use of oxygen, steroid medication and bronchodilators. A recently-developed surgical treatment is "Lung Volume Reduction Surgery," or LRVS.
Unfortunately, the side-effects of oxygen-deprivation from emphysema can result in damage to other organs in the body; transplants may then be required and the patient could be on anti-rejection drugs for the remainder of his/her life.
Bégin, Raymond et. al. "Emphysema in Silica- and Asbestos-Exposed Workers Seeking Compensation: A CT Study." Chest vol. 108 no. 3 (September 1995).
Editorial Staff. Occupational Respiratory Disease." FamilyDoctor.org.
Parnell, A.H. "Medicolegal Aspects of Asbestos-Related Diseases: A Defendant's Attorney's Perspective." in Pathology of Asbestos-Associated Diseases, 2nd ed. (New York: Springer, 2004)
Huuskonen, O. et. al. "Emphysema Findings Associated With Heavy Asbestos-Exposure in High Resolution Computed Tomography of Finnish Construction Workers." Journal of Occupational Health, vol. 46 no. 4 (July 2004).