Men’s Health Week: If You Were Exposed to Asbestos, Stop Smoking

man smoking at night

In our second post for Men’s Health Week 2017, it is appropriate to issue a warning to our readers of the danger of smoking if you may ever have been exposed to airborne asbestos at work or in another setting. Studies have been clear that, while asbestos exposure or smoking tobacco each separately increases the risk of lung cancer, for a person who has both risk factors, the chance of developing lung cancer increases exponentially.

Get Help to Quit Smoking

Bottom line: if there is any chance you may have been exposed to asbestos at any time in your life, do not begin to smoke tobacco and if you already do, get medical help to quit. It can take decades for asbestos-related lung cancer to develop, so do not think you are out of the woods and do not have to quit smoking just because lung cancer has not yet manifested.

Quitting cigarette smoking has been shown to reduce the risk of lung cancer for people who have been exposed to asbestos (as well as for those who have not).

Why Men Are at High Risk

This is an appropriate concern during a week devoted to improving the physical condition of men. After all, both of these risk factors impact men more than women. For example, while asbestos exposure and the subsequent risk of developing asbestos-related diseases like lung cancer are equal-opportunity dangers to both men and women, for the last century men, more than women, have overwhelmingly worked in jobs where asbestos has been more commonly released into the air, such as:

  • Firefighters
  • Shipbuilders, maintenance, and disassembly
  • Military service in a variety of settings
  • Miners
  • Automobile repairers, especially of brakes
  • Construction workers
  • Remodelers
  • Plumbers
  • Pipefitters
  • Boilermakers and maintenance workers
  • Railroad workers
  • Drywallers and plasterers
  • Factory workers
  • Demolition workers
  • Insulators
  • Industrial workers like those in the oil and gas industry
  • Power plant workers
  • Asbestos abatement workers
  • And more

Men also smoke more often than women do. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC, over 13 of every 100 adult women or 13.6 percent smoke cigarettes, while for men the number is almost 17 out of every 100 adult men or 16.7 percent.

Despite both smoking and asbestos exposure causing lung cancer alone, research clearly shows an explosion of lung-cancer risk when a person both has had asbestos exposure and smokes. We will look at two studies briefly that each looked at tens of thousands of worker histories to understand these risk factors better.

The 1968 Study

The first was an extensive study by Irving J. Selikoff, MD, and others on this deathly synergy published in JAMA in 1968, concluding bluntly: “There is an extraordinary risk of developing and dying from lung cancer for asbestos workers who smoke cigarettes regularly … the combination of asbestos exposure and cigarette smoking increased the risk approximately 90 times compared with men who neither work with asbestos nor smoke!” (Bolding added; exclamation mark in the original study.)

The 2013 Study

The second study appeared in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in 2013, conducted by Steven B. Markowitz and others. This study also considered a third risk factor that increases the chance of developing lung cancer: asbestosis, a serious disease involving scarring of lung tissue caused by asbestos exposure.

Findings confirming the exponential increase in lung-cancer risk from combining these risk factors:

  • Increase in risk of lung cancer from asbestos exposure: 3.6 fold
  • Increase in risk of lung cancer from asbestos exposure plus a diagnosis of asbestosis: 7.4 fold
  • Increase in risk of lung cancer from smoking: 10.3 fold
  • Increase in risk of lung cancer from asbestos exposure plus asbestosis plus smoking: 37 fold

The study also found a significant reduction of lung-cancer risk from smoking cessation.

Anyone who has ever been or who suspects he or she may have been exposed to asbestos should always refrain from smoking and if he or she already does, serious steps to quit should be taken in an effort to reduce the risk of lung cancer.