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Asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of serious respiratory diseases and cancers, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other conditions. For nearly 100 years, asbestos was one of the most commonly used materials in industries such as construction, shipbuilding and manufacturing.
It wasn't until the mid-20th century that researchers officially established the connection between asbestos exposure and serious respiratory conditions (although evidence was presented as early as the 1920s), but by then, millions of workers had already been exposed to asbestos fibers in the workplace and in other locations. While federal asbestos exposure limits were imposed in 1972, an estimated 10,000 people in the United States continue to pass away each year from asbestos-related illnesses.
Where Asbestos Exposure Can Occur
Asbestos exposure can occur in many different settings, with certain occupations, products, jobsites and locations at a particularly high risk of exposure. Common locations and products that have involved asbestos are outlined in the sections listed below.
Workers from practically all trades may have been exposed to asbestos fibers while on the job. Drywall tapers, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics and many other occupations may be at risk for asbestos exposure.
Thousands of products were manufactured using asbestos fibers, as the material was known to be extremely strong and resistant to heat and fire. Asbestos may be found in insulation, drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, cements, paint and more.
Asbestos exposure may occur while on the job. Many workplaces utilized asbestos in their products and facilities, placing millions at risk for exposure on a daily basis. Learn more about where asbestos was found on the following jobsites.
Common jobsites containing asbestos
Asbestos was used in nearly every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, mainly for insulation purposes inside ships, vehicles and aircraft from the early 1900s until the 1970s. Thousands of veterans have since suffered asbestos-related illnesses due to asbestos exposure during their service.
Find more about asbestos exposure in the Navy
Exposure that occurs outdoors due to the presence of naturally occurring asbestos or asbestos fibers that have been released into the air as a result of mining or a natural disaster is referred to as environmental asbestos exposure. The state of California is home to some of the largest naturally occurring deposits of asbestos, such as the Clear Creek Management Area and the El Dorado Hills community. In the state of Montana the small town Libby has been greatly affected by an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine that operated and processed ore until 1992.
In New York City when the World Trade Center towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, a total of 2,000 tons of asbestos were released into the surrounding area. Some of the first responders have even been diagnosed with and passed away from mesothelioma, which usually takes decades to develop following asbestos exposure. Another case of accidental environmental asbestos exposure took place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The costly hurricane damaged thousands of older asbestos-contaminated homes and raised many concerns about asbestos exposure during hurricane cleanup efforts.
Find more about environmental exposure sites
Exposure Caused by Natural Asbestos Deposits
One 2003 study combined data found in five previous studies, examining the incidence of asbestos-related illnesses in Da-yao, China, a rural county found to have asbestos patches in surface soil. The study found that 20 percent of residents older than 40 had pleural plaques.
By the late 1990s, 22 new mesothelioma cases a year were diagnosed in the population of 68,000. Mesothelioma was one of the most common cancers in the population, accounting for 22 percent of all cancer deaths. Additionally, rates of lung cancer and asbestosis were significantly higher than average.
Percentage of Total Cancer Deaths Caused by Mesothelioma
Other studies have had similar findings. A 2005 study looked at 10 randomly selected villages in Anatolia, Turkey, all of which were known to use asbestos-containing soil. The study investigated a total of 991 villagers and found significantly higher-than-usual rates of pleural plaques, asbestosis, mesothelioma and all other asbestos-related illnesses.
The annual rate of mesothelioma diagnoses was calculated at 115 per 100,000 for men and 160 for women. Much like the findings in Da-yao, this study concluded that lifelong environmental asbestos exposure leads to disease frequencies similar to those found in asbestos workers.
Exposure Caused by Nearby Asbestos Operations
Another study tested the effects of environmental exposure in a population living near an asbestos manufacturing plant. The 2009 study examined malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) rates in Shubra El-Kheima, Egypt, an industrial city containing the Sigwart Company asbestos plant. It compared rates in individuals working in the plant, those living near the plant and those in a control group with no known asbestos exposure. In total, the study had more than 4,000 participants.
In this particular study, the rate of MPM was highest in the group with environmental asbestos exposure, with 2.8 percent of this group having the cancer. The group with occupational exposure had a strikingly lower rate of only 0.8 percent. As expected, the control group had the fewest incidences, with a rate of 0.1 percent. These rates varied for other asbestos-related illnesses such as diffuse pleural thickening. Overall, the study found a slightly higher — but still comparable — rate of asbestos illnesses in asbestos workers than in nearby residents.
|Disorder||Percent Occupationally Exposed||Percent Environmentally Exposed||Percent Non-Exposed|
|Malignant pleural mesothelioma||0.8||2.8||0.1|
|Diffuse pleural thickening||5.9||1.3||0.1|
|Benign pleural effusion||0.2||1.2||0.0|
|Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis||0.8||0.9||0.2|
Data from a 2009 study in Egypt show a strong correlation between environmental asbestos exposure and asbestos-related diseases.
People can get an asbestos-related disease without ever working with or around the toxic mineral. Secondary exposure, or indirect exposure, can be just as dangerous as firsthand exposure.
While any kind of exposure is much less common today than even 20 years ago, women faced an increased risk for secondary asbestos exposure when asbestos use was high during the mid-20th century.
At the time, men made up the majority of the industrial working class. The occupations within these industrial settings often required workers to handle asbestos-containing products. After a long day at on the job, workers could potentially carry home asbestos fibers on their hair, skin and clothes and create a secondary exposure risk for their families.
Secondary Exposure Occurrences
Responsible for an impactful portion of mesothelioma cases among women, secondary asbestos exposure has also affected the lives of children. If exposed at an early age, people are much more likely to develop an asbestos-related disease late in their childhood or early into their adult life.
Some of the most common ways a family member may have experienced secondary asbestos exposure included:
- Laundry - Clothing of workers who handled asbestos products provided a significant risk for secondary exposure. Because of the jagged structure of asbestos fibers, the microscopic particles could easily attach to clothing. The person in the home who handled and washed these clothes likely experienced secondary asbestos exposure.
- Furniture - If the individual bringing asbestos into the home had not changed or taken off asbestos-contaminated clothing by the time they sat down on furniture, tiny asbestos fibers could have become embedded in the couch, chairs, carpet, bed and other pieces of furniture.
- Hugs - If a worker came home with asbestos fibers attached to their hair, skin or clothes and received hugs from their children or spouse, family members could have been subjected to secondary exposure. Some mesothelioma cases have developed from children sitting on their father's or grandfather's lap after the worker came home from work.
While family members who receive secondary exposure do not have any direct contact with asbestos-containing products, the amount of asbestos dust brought home is enough to cause mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease later in life.
Study Spotlight: Between 1941 and 1954, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City studied the health of 679 family members from the 1,664 workers employed at a factory in Patterson, New Jersey. The researchers discovered five cases of mesothelioma among the family members of the factory workers. Sources of asbestos dust were also found in the homes of former Patterson factory workers 20 years after the factory shut down.
Secondary Exposure Legal Claims
Like plaintiffs who are directly exposed to asbestos, claimants who are injured by secondary asbestos exposure may be eligible for compensation. In order to bring a successful legal claim, they must be able to trace their exposure to a defendant who is liable for failure to warn or protect against asbestos dangers. This usually involves investigating the work history of a family member who was exposed to asbestos on the job.
For instance, John Panza Jr., a 40-year-old English professor, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012. For more than 30 years, his father worked at a brake-producing plant where products manufactured by National Friction Products Corp. were drilled and abraded. As a child, Panza helped his father wash work clothes. In 2012, he filed a lawsuit against National Friction alleging that he inhaled asbestos fibers from the company’s products that landed on his father’s clothes.
In 2013, an Ohio jury found that National Friction was liable for Panza’s illness. It ordered the company to pay Panza and his wife $27.5 million. The plaintiffs’ award included $515,000 in economic damages, $12 million in non-economic damages, and $15 million for the wife's loss of consortium claim. A second trial will be held to determine whether National Friction will also be ordered to pay punitive damages.
If asbestos materials are removed from a home or structure, there is a high risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers if proper asbestos abatement procedures are not followed. It is important to adhere to federal safety regulations regarding the removal and disposal of asbestos to minimize health risks.
Information About Asbestos
The term "asbestos" has been given to six naturally occurring mineral fibers. The asbestos fibers that compose these minerals cannot be seen by the naked eye once separated, as the fibers typically measure less than 50 to 70 nanometers in width. Their small size allows the fibers to lodge deep into delicate body tissues if inhaled or ingested, which makes asbestos exposure hazardous to human health.
Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to microscopic asbestos fibers can cause permanent damage to the lungs and other body organs and lead to the development of asbestos-related cancers. Symptoms of asbestos diseases may not appear until 10 to 50 years after exposure has occurred. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year and about 2,000 to 3,200 asbestos-related lung cancer deaths are recorded annually. And an estimated 200,000 people in the United States are currently living with asbestosis, an inflammatory condition of the lung tissue caused by asbestos exposure. Many other cancers and serious conditions have been linked to asbestos exposure. The conditions may be found below.
|Lung Cancer||Lung Disease|
|Other Cancers||Other Related Conditions|
Were you or someone you know exposed to asbestos? Would you like more information about asbestos and the health risks of exposure? Contact our Patient Advocates by calling (800) 615-2270.