Lung cancer develops in 26% of people as a consequence of both asbestos exposure and tobacco smoking
Nowadays, it is no secret that tobacco smoke is highly carcinogenic, being the primary cause of lung cancer. The disease is currently the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Asbestos, a naturally occurring fibrous mineral, is also a human carcinogen whose inhalation or ingestion can lead to a wide range of harrowing diseases, including lung cancer. Every year, approximately 6,000 people lose their lives to lung cancer stemming exclusively from occupational asbestos exposure, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program of the National Cancer Institute. Nevertheless, the number of individuals who die of a combination of factors is significantly higher.
While both cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure are very dangerous, each of these factors causes a distinct type of lung cancer. Due to their microscopic size and rough texture, asbestos fibers cannot be expelled from the human body. Thereby, once asbestos fibers reach the lungs, they will remain there for decades, slowly producing irritation and scarring of the tissue. By contrast, tobacco smoke has a different structure on a molecular level and, while nicotine and other chemical particles will infiltrate your bloodstream after you smoke a cigarette, they will not attach themselves to any of your organs, as they are incomparably smaller. Your body eliminates nicotine within 1 to 10 days, depending on how heavy of a smoker you are.
Considering how dissimilar asbestos and tobacco are, it is only natural that each of these awful carcinogens will lead to lung cancer in a different manner. Thus, asbestos exposure will generally cause lung cancer within 15 to 35 years from the first inhalation of toxic fibers, whereas smoking will take a considerably longer time to trigger the disease – roughly 55 years from the moment you put the first cigarette in your mouth. When both factors are applicable to a person, their risk of developing lung cancer increases by 50 to 90 times, as the presence of a large number of asbestos fibers in the lungs entails a greater hazard than tobacco smoking. On the other hand, the risk of mesothelioma is not influenced by smoking.
A study from 2013 published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine evaluated the health of the lungs of 2,377 participants who were working with asbestos insulation. They were monitored between 1981 and 2008. The author of the research, Dr. Markowitz, concluded that “asbestos exposure increased the rate ratio of lung cancer by 5.2 fold, smoking by 10.3-fold, and both by 28.4-fold”. Additionally, a significant portion of the participants (61%) had developed asbestosis in the meantime, which would co-occur with lung cancer in more than half of the cases.