Asbestos Exposure

How Asbestos Exposure Affects the Body
Detailed chart of asbestos exposure and the body.

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, it 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 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 related illnesses.

Where Exposure Can Occur

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.

Occupations

Occupations

Workers from practically all trades may have been exposed to fibers while on the job. Drywall tapers, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics and many other occupations may be at risk.

Products

Products

Thousands of products were manufactured using asbestos fibers, as the material was known to be extremely strong and resistant to heat and fire. It may be found in insulation, drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, cements, paint and more.

Jobsites

Jobsites

Asbestos exposure may occur while on the job. Many workplaces utilized the mineral in their products and facilities, placing millions at risk for exposure. Learn more about where asbestos was found on the following jobsites.

Military

Military

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 related illnesses due to exposure during their service.

Find more about asbestos exposure in the Navy

Environmental

Environmental exposure

Exposure that occurs outdoors due to the presence of naturally occurring asbestos or fibers that have been released into the air as a result of mining or a natural disaster is referred to as environmental exposure. 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 was greatly affected by a 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, 2,000 tons of asbestos were released into the surrounding area. Some of the first responders have been diagnosed with and passed away from mesothelioma, which usually takes decades to develop following exposure. Another case of environmental exposure took place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The costly hurricane damaged thousands of older, contaminated homes and raised concerns about exposure during hurricane cleanup efforts.

Find more about environmental exposure sites

Nearby Asbestos Operations

One 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 related illnesses such as diffuse pleural thickening. Overall, the study found a slightly higher — but still comparable — rate of related illnesses in asbestos workers than in nearby residents.

DisorderPercent Occupationally ExposedPercent Environmentally ExposedPercent Non-Exposed
Malignant pleural mesothelioma 0.8 2.8 0.1
Pleural plaques 1.4 1.5 0.0
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
Pericardial calcification 0.2 0.3 0.0
Total 9.4 8.3 0.4

Data from a 2009 study in Egypt show a strong correlation between environmental asbestos exposure and asbestos-related diseases.

Secondary Exposure

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 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 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 exposure also affected the lives of children. If exposed at an early age, people may develop an asbestos-related disease during adulthood.

Some of the most common ways a family member may have experienced secondary exposure included:

  • Laundry - Clothing of workers who handled asbestos products provided a significant risk for secondary exposure. Because of the jagged structure of the fibers, the microscopic particles could easily attach to clothing. The person in the home who handled and washed these clothes likely experienced secondary exposure.
  • Furniture - If the individual bringing asbestos into the home had not changed or taken off contaminated clothing by the time they sat down on furniture, the fibers could have become embedded in the couch, chairs, carpet, bed and other pieces of furniture.
  • Hugs - If a worker came home with 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 dust brought home is enough to cause mesothelioma or a 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 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 the dangers. This usually involves investigating the work history of a family member who was exposed 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 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.

Abatement

Asbestos abatement

If asbestos materials are removed from a home or structure, there is a high risk of exposure to airborne fibers if proper abatement procedures are not followed. It is important to adhere to federal safety regulations regarding the removal and disposal of the materials to minimize health risks.

Health Risks of Exposure

Exposure to microscopic asbestos fibers can cause permanent damage to the lungs and other body organs and lead to the development of cancer. Symptoms of these 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 exposure. Many other cancers and serious conditions have been linked to exposure. The conditions may be found below.

Cancer Other Conditions
Mesothelioma Asbestosis
Lung Cancer Lung Disease
Asbestos Cancer COPD
Other Related Conditions

Were you or someone you know exposed to asbestos? Would you like more information about the health risks of exposure? Contact our Patient Advocates by calling (800) 615-2270.