Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that destroys lung tissue and reduces airflow to the lungs. A person can develop COPD as a result of long-term exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is an umbrella term for a group of naturally occurring silicates composed of long, thin fibers. These silicates have insulating and heatproofing properties, making asbestos a popular material in the construction industry. Despite its prevalence, asbestos is potentially harmful to respiratory health.

This article outlines the effects of asbestos on respiratory health and asks whether asbestos can cause COPD. We also provide information on COPD symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Finally, we discuss when to contact a doctor about COPD symptoms.

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All types of asbestos contain properties that are harmful to health. Reports of asbestos causing health problems date back to the 1920s, when a British pathologist named William Cooke found that asbestos dust can cause lung fibrosis, or “asbestosis.”

According to the British Lung Foundation, asbestosis develops as a result of inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers into the lungs. These fibers damage tiny air sacs called “alveoli,” which help exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Over time, scar tissue builds up around the alveoli, impeding their function. This makes breathing more difficult.

The American Lung Association notes that asbestos exposure also increases the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. The latter is a serious form of cancer that develops on the outer lining of the lungs and other organs. Almost all cases of mesothelioma are due to asbestos exposure.

Learn more about asbestosis here.

In a 2020 study, researchers investigated the effects of occupational exposure to asbestos and other insulating materials on respiratory health. They found that exposure to insulating materials was associated with an increased incidence of recurrent chest infections. However, the study showed that asbestos was the only insulating material to also increase the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The Mesothelioma Center states that asbestos does not cause COPD directly. Rather, COPD weakens the lungs, making them more susceptible to diseases associated with asbestos exposure.

Symptoms of COPD include the following:

A person with COPD may also experience the following indirect symptoms, typically as a result of continual discomfort:

To diagnose COPD, a doctor will begin by assessing a person’s symptoms and reviewing their medical history.

When reviewing a person’s medical history, a doctor will pay attention to the following factors:

  • prior symptoms of COPD
  • family history of COPD
  • history of smoking
  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • exposure to other particles, such as asbestos

Following the initial assessment, a doctor may order tests to confirm a diagnosis of COPD or rule out other medical conditions.

The main test for diagnosing COPD is a spirometric assessment. This test involves breathing into a tube connected to a machine that measures lung function. Spirometry is one measure of lung function. People with suspected COPD may also undergo body plethysmography to measure lung volume and diffusing capacity.

Additional tests may include:

  • chest X-ray: an imaging test that can help identify abnormalities within the lungs
  • arterial blood gas test: a blood test to assess how well the blood is obtaining oxygen and removing carbon dioxide

Treatment for COPD should begin as soon as possible following diagnosis. The main aims of treatment include:

  • managing symptoms
  • reducing exacerbations
  • improving quality of life
  • reducing mortality

People will require different types and levels of treatment depending on the severity of their COPD. Some possible treatment options are outlined below.


There are five main types of medication for treating COPD:

  • Bronchodilators: These relax the muscles around the airways to improve airflow.
  • Corticosteroids: These reduce inflammation to improve airflow.
  • Systemic glucocorticoids: These suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation.
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) inhibitors: These suppress the immune system and have bronchodilator effects.
  • Antibiotics: These help combat bacterial infections.

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy involves breathing in oxygen-rich air through a mask or nasal tube connected to an oxygen device, such as an oxygen concentrator or cylinder.

The treatment may be necessary for people whose COPD causes dangerously low blood oxygen levels.


Doctors may recommend lung surgery to improve breathing in people with severe or frequent COPD symptoms.

There are two main types of lung surgery for COPD:

  • Bullectomy: This is a procedure that involves removing bullae from the lungs. Bullae are large, empty air sacs that develop following the destruction of hundreds of alveoli. They crowd out functioning areas of the lung, making it difficult for a person to breathe.
  • Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS): This procedure involves removing around 30% of the diseased lung tissue so that the remaining healthy lung tissue can function more effectively.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

The aim of pulmonary rehabilitation is to rebuild lung strength with exercise and education, which in turn can enhance lung function and ease symptoms. Through pulmonary rehabilitation, individuals may manage their symptoms, become fitter and more active, and experience a better quality of life.

Support groups

In addition to undergoing physical treatment, it can help people to join a support group. The American Lung Association lists the following resources that may benefit people living with COPD:

  • Lung HelpLine: This is a free service that people can call to speak with a registered nurse. As well as providing information, Lung HelpLine can offer support for people who are trying to quit smoking.
  • Better Breathers Club: These are support groups where people can connect with others who share similar experiences.
  • Living with COPD Virtual Support Group: This is an online community for people with COPD.

The production and use of asbestos in the United States have declined significantly since the 1980s. Older buildings containing asbestos are generally safe, though damaging or disturbing the asbestos can cause the fibers to become airborne. For this reason, the risk of asbestos exposure is greater for people who work in construction, maintenance, and insulation.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), roughly 125 million people globally currently experience asbestos exposure at work.

The main way to prevent COPD and other lung diseases is to avoid exposure to harmful agents. This includes avoiding environmental and occupational exposure to the following inorganic substances:

  • asbestos
  • carbon dust
  • silica
  • beryllium
  • chromium

People should also avoid fumes from cigarette smoke or pollution and avoid exposure to organic substances such as high temperature fungi and bird droppings.

It is important for a person to speak with a doctor as soon as possible if they are experiencing symptoms of COPD. The earlier a person receives a diagnosis and appropriate treatment, the greater the likelihood that the treatment will be effective.

It can be difficult to recognize the early signs of COPD. Key symptoms to look out for include breathlessness and fatigue.

Asbestos is a substance composed of long, thin silicon fibers. It is particularly prevalent in the construction industry. However, long-term exposure to asbestos can cause chronic and severe respiratory conditions, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is the umbrella term for a group of lung conditions that involve lung damage, reduced airflow, and breathing difficulties. Although there is no cure for COPD, treatments can help manage the symptoms, reduce exacerbations, and improve quality of life.

The best way a person can reduce their risk of developing COPD is to avoid exposure to harmful substances, including asbestos. If symptoms develop, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment improve the outlook for people living with the disease.