Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can become trapped in the body’s respiratory or digestive tract. The body can get rid of some asbestos fibers, but many fibers become stuck permanently.
No level of asbestos exposure is considered safe. However, most problems arise after years of repeated and long-term exposure to the carcinogen.
When asbestos fibers accumulate in human tissue through repeat exposure, they cause inflammation and DNA damage. Over time, this damage causes cellular changes that can lead to cancer and other diseases.
The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure multiplies the hazard, creating a greater risk to health.
Cancers caused by asbestos exposure include:
- Mesothelioma: This is a rare and incurable cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen.
- Lung Cancer: Asbestos-related lung cancer accounts for approximately 4% of all lung cancer cases.
- Ovarian Cancer: The International Agency for Research on Cancer confirmed that asbestos causes ovarian cancer in 2012.
- Laryngeal Cancer: In 2006, the National Institutes of Health confirmed that asbestos causes laryngeal cancer.
Noncancerous conditions caused by asbestos include:
- Asbestosis: Inflammation and scarring of lung tissue, which prevents the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally.
- Pleural plaques: Areas of fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs — the most common sign of asbestos exposure.
- Pleural Effusion: Buildup of fluid around the lungs that causes difficulty breathing.
- Diffuse Pleural Thickening: Extensive scarring that thickens the pleural lining of the lungs, causing chest pain and breathing issues.
- Pleurisy: Severe inflammation of the pleural lining, also known as pleuritic pain.
- Atelectasis: Inflammation and scarring that cause the pleural lining to fold in on itself, causing the lungs to underinflate.
It may take anywhere from 10 to 70 years after the initial exposure for asbestos-related diseases to develop. Asbestosis can develop in as few as 10 years. Related cancers usually take 20-50 years to develop.
Signs of asbestos-related disease include breathing difficulty, chest pain and a range of other cancer symptoms.
The EWG Action Fund estimates that asbestos-related diseases kill 12,000 to 15,000 Americans each year. This includes more than 1,000 deaths from asbestosis and around 8,000 to 10,000 lung cancer deaths.
About 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually, according to the American Cancer Society. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure.
The U.S. incidence rate of this rare disease peaked in the 1990s and has been slowly falling since. Hopefully it will continue to fall, thanks to regulations on asbestos that were implemented in the 1970s.
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How Does Asbestos Exposure Happen?
Asbestos exposure happens when microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne. The toxic mineral dust can remain in the air for hours, placing anyone nearby in danger of inhaling or ingesting it.
In an ideal environment with little disturbances, it may take 48 to 72 hours for asbestos fibers to settle. If the dust is disturbed, it can easily become airborne again because it is so light.
Most people are exposed through their occupation. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in thousands of domestic, commercial and industrial products.
Most U.S. companies stopped using asbestos in the 1980s, but asbestos-containing materials remain in millions of older buildings in America. New asbestos products are still made in many countries around the world.
Dr. Ken Takahashi Director of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute
“Asbestos-related disease is 100 percent preventable. That fact motivates me. It should motivate all of us. If we stopped using asbestos, by definition, we could stop asbestos disease.”
Occupations in manual labor and skilled trades present the highest risk of asbestos exposure. Workers in construction, shipyards and factories face a high likelihood of exposure on the job.
U.S. veterans were once among the most vulnerable because of the military’s past reliance on asbestos products, especially on Navy ships.
Home and commercial renovation is also hazardous because many older buildings have asbestos-containing materials. When common asbestos products found in homes start to deteriorate or are cut, sanded, drilled or disturbed in any way, microscopic fibers enter the air.
Environmental and secondary exposure to asbestos is less common, but it still happens regularly. Most everyone in their lifetime has inhaled some quantity of asbestos, but trace amounts rarely cause health problems.
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Where Asbestos Exposure Occurs
Asbestos exposure can occur if you:
- Live near contaminated job sites or natural asbestos deposits
- Use or disturb asbestos-containing products
- Work in certain occupations, including the military
- Experience manmade or natural disasters
Thousands of products were manufactured by companies using asbestos fibers. Asbestos may be found in insulation, drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, cement, paint and more. Most U.S. homes and commercial buildings built before 1980 contain asbestos products.
These asbestos-containing construction products are able to travel through waste water after flooding and other natural disasters. In this way, construction products can contaminate waterways with asbestos in the water supply.
Asbestos in automobiles and transportation materials continues to be a source of contamination through products such as:
- Spark plugs
- Air conditioning
These products have placed workers in automotive garages, gas stations and vehicle depots at significant risk of asbestos exposure.
Many types of workplaces in the U.S. used asbestos in their products and facilities, putting millions of workers at risk.
Asbestos Exposure at Job Sites
Before asbestos safety regulations were enforced, U.S. workers in mining, heavy industry and all construction trades were often exposed to asbestos fibers while on the job. Today, drywall tapers, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics and many other occupations remain at risk.
Every branch of the U.S. armed forces used asbestos during the 20th century. Service members who lived on Navy vessels or worked on military vehicles and aircraft from the 1930s to the 1970s were most at risk. Buildings on military bases were also commonly constructed with asbestos products.
Environmental exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are released through:
- Disturbance of a natural asbestos deposit
- Processing asbestos ore
- Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes
In 2016, the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health published a study that showed occupational exposure to asbestos has declined in recent years. But there has been a rise in environmental exposure in specific geographic areas.
The study also used the findings to explain why the percentage of women and younger patients with asbestos-related disease has been rising.
Researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center conducted a similar study in 2015. It highlighted the need to be more aware of environmental exposure in Nevada.
Northern California is also home to large naturally occurring deposits of asbestos.
Risks from Nearby Asbestos Operations
Job sites that use asbestos often contaminate the air outside with airborne dust. People in nearby communities face environmental exposure that puts them at risk of related diseases.
A 2011 Atmospheric Pollution Research study looked at the effects of environmental exposure in a population living near an asbestos manufacturing plant. The study examined rates of pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions in Shubra El-Kheima, Egypt, an industrial city containing the Sigwart Company asbestos plant.
Researchers compared disease 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.
Pleural mesothelioma was highest (2.8%) in the group with environmental asbestos exposure. The group with occupational exposure had a strikingly lower rate of only 0.8%. As expected, the control group had the fewest incidences, with a rate of 0.1%.
These rates varied for other illnesses such as diffuse pleural thickening. Overall, the study found a slightly higher, but still comparable, rate of asbestos-related illnesses in asbestos workers than in nearby residents.
Research shows that short-term asbestos exposure has caused mesothelioma in people who were exposed on the job and through secondhand exposure. Short-term exposure has also caused mesothelioma among people who lived near naturally occurring asbestos deposits.
9/11 Attack on the World Trade Center
The 2001 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center released tons of pulverized asbestos insulation into the air of New York City. This caused a sudden and very serious exposure problem for rescue, recovery and cleanup workers who remained at the site for months.
In 2006, a study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives that followed those workers. About 70% of them suffered new or worsened respiratory problems, and about 28% had abnormal lung function tests.
Researchers continue to closely follow those who worked in the rubble. They also follow nearby residents for long-term health consequences.
Secondary Asbestos 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.
This kind of exposure happens when an asbestos worker unknowingly brings asbestos fibers home on their work clothes, hair and skin.
Throughout the 20th century in the U.S., men were more likely to work directly with asbestos products. Secondary exposure was more likely to affect women and children in the homes of these asbestos workers. Women who laundered their husband’s contaminated work clothes were the most at risk of secondary exposure.
Improper Asbestos Removal
It is important to adhere to federal safety regulations regarding the removal and disposal of asbestos-containing materials to minimize health risks. There is a high risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers if proper abatement procedures are not followed.
Protecting Yourself and Loved Ones
Today, the law requires all employers to protect workers from asbestos and other job-related health risks. Workers should use protective equipment provided by employers and follow proper safety procedures. Approved respirators should be worn when working around asbestos fibers.
It also is important to take precautions against bringing asbestos home from work. Clean any contaminated clothing or shoes at the job site, and take a shower before returning home to avoid endangering family members.
Safety equipment and good practices today protect you against future asbestos problems.
If you think your work conditions are unsafe or your employer isn’t adequately protecting you from asbestos, file an anonymous complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
13 Cited Article Sources
The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.
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Last Modified May 14, 2020