Smoking is a known risk factor for many different types of cancer as well as many other non-malignant illnesses, and for decades doctors have warned against the ability of tobacco smoke to a cause of disease and serious illness.
Asbestos related diseases affect thousands in the UK every year. Whilst we are seeing increasing numbers of younger people and those who suffered second-hand exposure the majority remains those working in trades and professions between the 1950s to 1980s in occupations that regularly exposed them to asbestos-containing materials. Many of these jobs would cause asbestos particles to form into clouds of dust around the workplace. Often employees were not supplied with masks or any other form of respiratory protection and they would end up having to breathe in these dust particles unaware of the potential dangers.
These asbestos particles and fibres would be stuck in the lungs or lining of the chest once inhaled and remain there. Over time, they caused severe damage to both the lungs and the lining of the chest.
These diseases usually takes a long time to develop with most doctors agreeing it takes at least 10 years from the date of exposure and it can be many decades into the future.
There are five main forms of asbestos disease –asbestosis, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer. Pleural plaques are a marker of asbestos exposure but usually do not cause any respiratory problems on their own. You have been unable to make a claim for a diagnosis of pleural plaques only since 2007 following a government ruling.
Mesothelioma is often the most recognised asbestos related disease, because asbestos exposure is the sole cause in the vast majority of cases. Neither has smoking been found to cause the benign conditions of asbestosis or diffuse pleural thickening. However, smoking does play a role in the development of other asbestos-related lung cancer.
Whilst smoking may not be the cause of an asbestos-related condition it can contribute to the severity of symptoms. As any smoker will know smoking diminishes the lungs ability to take in oxygen and reduces the ability of the lungs to clean themselves. This can exacerbate symptoms of coughing and breathlessness.
That then leaves lung cancer, which has a long history of links with tobacco smoke. So what happens when someone who is, or was, a smoker also suffers exposure to asbestos and is diagnosed with lung cancer?
The relationship between tobacco smoke and lung cancer
Of the thousands of people who are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, many have smoked and been exposed to asbestos at some stage in their lives. Throughout previous decades smoking was a lot more common, particularly amongst male, manual workers who are also the most likely to have been exposed to asbestos.
Smoking rates were also much higher in the past than they are currently. In 1974 51% of all men and 41% of women in the UK, aged 16 and over, smoked. Nowadays this is closer to 14%.
Of the lung cancer cases diagnosed every year in the UK it is estimated that 72% of them are caused by smoking whereas it is estimated that only 6 – 8% of instances of lung cancer are linked to asbestos exposure.
Owing to many different carcinogenic substances being linked to lung cancer it can be challenging to prove asbestos as the cause on a legal basis. It is commonly accepted that workers who have been heavily exposed to asbestos are at double the risk of getting lung cancer compared to the general population. To determine exactly what ‘heavily’ means we refer to the Helsinki Criteria which sets the medical framework to show what level of exposure asbestos doubles the risk.
Smoking, asbestos exposure and lung cancer
The criteria set out in the Helsinki document can become quite complicated however as a general rule it can be boiled down to; one year of heavy asbestos exposure or between 5 and 10 years of moderate exposure. Either of these will at least double a person’s risk of being diagnosed with asbestos-related lung cancer.
It is believed that tobacco smoke and asbestos work in synergy, meaning someone who is exposed to both is many times more likely to develop lung cancer than someone who has been exposed to just one of these substances. To put this into figures:
- The risk of someone who smokes getting lung cancer increases by a multiple of 10.
- The chances of someone who is exposed to asbestos dust getting lung cancer increases by a multiple of 5.
- For someone who has smoked and been exposed to asbestos, the risk of getting lung cancer increases by a multiple of 50 (10 x 5).
Can a lung cancer sufferer who had been exposed to asbestos but was also a smoker expect to get asbestos disease compensation?
The short answer is yes; provided they meet the definition of heavy asbestos exposure contained within the Helsinki criteria. Unfortunately someone exposed to both tobacco smoke and asbestos has had their chances of developing lung cancer multiplied significantly.