Asbestosis is defined as diffuse pulmonary fibrosis caused by the inhalation of excessive amounts of asbestos fibers. Pathologically, both pulmonary fibrosis of a particular pattern and evidence of excess asbestos in the lungs must be present. Clinically, the disease usually progresses slowly, with a typical latent period of more than 20 years from first exposure to onset of symptoms.
Differential diagnosis: IDIOPATHIC PULMONARY FIBROSIS: The pulmonary fibrosis of asbestosis is interstitial and has a basal subpleural distribution, similar to that seen in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is the principal differential diagnosis. However, there are differences between the 2 diseases apart from the presence or absence of asbestos. First, the interstitial fibrosis of asbestosis is accompanied by very little inflammation, which, although not marked, is better developed in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Second, in keeping with the slow tempo of the disease, the fibroblastic foci that characterize idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis are infrequent in asbestosis. Third, asbestosis is almost always accompanied by mild fibrosis of the visceral pleura, a feature that is rare in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Differential diagnosis: RESPIRATORY BRONCHIOLITIS: Asbestosis is believed to start in the region of the respiratory bronchiole and gradually extends outward to involve more and more of the lung acinus, until the separate foci of fibrosis link, resulting in the characteristically diffuse pattern of the disease. These early stages of the disease are diagnostically problematic because similar centriacinar fibrosis is often seen in cigarette smokers and is characteristic of mixed-dust pneumoconiosis. Fibrosis limited to the walls of the bronchioles does not represent asbestosis.
Role of asbestos bodies: Histologic evidence of asbestos inhalation is provided by the identification of asbestos bodies either lying freely in the air spaces or embedded in the interstitial fibrosis. Asbestos bodies are distinguished from other ferruginous bodies by their thin, transparent core. Two or more asbestos bodies per square centimeter of a 5- mu m-thick lung section, in combination with interstitial fibrosis of the appropriate pattern, are indicative of asbestosis. Fewer asbestos bodies do not necessarily exclude a diagnosis of asbestosis, but evidence of excess asbestos would then require quantitative studies performed on lung digests.
Role of fiber analysis: Quantification of asbestos load may be performed on lung digests or bronchoalveolar lavage material, employing either light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, or transmission electron microscopy. Whichever technique is employed, the results are only dependable if the laboratory is well practiced in the method chosen, frequently performs such analyses, and the results are compared with those obtained by the same laboratory applying the same technique to a control population.