Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure can lead to a myriad of serious health problems, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive and incurable cancer. Exposure to asbestos can happen wherever asbestos is present: At home, a public building such as a school or government office, a war fought on foreign soil or on the job.

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Occupational exposure is the No. 1 cause of asbestos disease. That means roofers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, firefighters, auto mechanics, insulators, factory workers and many others are at a high risk of exposure.

Diagram showing how asbestos exposure affects the body

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Those who worked in construction, shipyards, power plants, oil refineries and steel mills also faced the likelihood of high asbestos exposure on the job.

U.S. military veterans were the most vulnerable of all — accounting for almost a third of all cases — because of the military’s past reliance on asbestos products, especially on Navy ships.

For much of the 20th century, until its long-term toxicity became well known, thousands of everyday products used asbestos because it was coveted for its heat resistance, versatility and tensile strength. Mesothelioma Guide

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How Exposure Happens

Asbestos disease starts with the unknowing inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers. While no level of asbestos exposure is considered safe, most problems arise after repeated and long-term exposures to the carcinogen.

Environmental and secondhand exposure to asbestos is rarer, but it still happens regularly. Most everyone in their lifetime has inhaled some quantity of asbestos, but these trace amounts rarely cause health problems.

Dr. Ken Takahashi

“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.”

Dr. Ken Takahashi, director of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute

Harmful exposures occur in a wide range of occupational settings. Home and commercial renovation or remodeling can be especially hazardous because many common building materials already contain asbestos. When asbestos products start to deteriorate or are cut, sanded, drilled or disturbed in any way, microscopic fibers enter the air.

For example, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) took issue with the sandblasting practices of Alaska-based shipbuilding and repair facility Seward Ship’s Drydock. The ADEC issued Seward a notice of violation for uncontrolled “fugitive particulate emissions” at its sandblasting operations.

If workers sandblasted asbestos-containing materials, such as paint, insulation or joint compounds, off of a vessel, the asbestos fibers released would no longer be confined to the sandblasted area, and people elsewhere in the shipyard could inhale them.

Fibers can remain airborne for hours, placing anyone nearby in danger. Once inhaled, they can become trapped in the respiratory tract, where they may stay for life.

Health Risks of Exposure

Once inhaled, asbestos fibers can become lodged in the thin lining surrounding the lungs and cause inflammation, making breathing increasingly difficult.

They eventually will cause scarring, which can lead to genetic mutations and cancer. In the early stages, symptoms of these diseases often mirror those of less serious illnesses and may not be diagnosed until 20 to 50 years after the initial exposure.

Each year, approximately 2,000 to 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. An estimated 10,000 Americans die annually from an asbestos-related disease.

Currently, an estimated 200,000 people in the country are diagnosed with some form of asbestos-related illness.

  • Pleural plaques: These are the most common indication of asbestos exposure. They are characterized by fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs.

  • Asbestosis: Asbestosis is characterized by inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue, which prevents the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally.

  • COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is not directly caused by asbestos, but exposure increases the risk of developing the disease.

  • Mesothelioma: This is a rare, aggressive and incurable asbestos-caused cancer.

  • Lung Cancer: Asbestos-related lung cancer accounts for approximately 4 percent of all lung cancer cases. Asbestos exposure also increases the chances of developing lung cancer.

Where Exposure Occurs

Exposure can occur while living near job sites or contaminated environments, using asbestos-containing products or working in certain occupations, including the U.S. military. Exposure can also occur during manmade or natural disasters.


Every branch of the U.S. armed forces incorporated asbestos. People on U.S. Navy ships and operators of military vehicles and aircraft from the early 1900s to the 1970s were most at risk. Since that time, thousands of veterans who worked in the following vessels have suffered illnesses related to asbestos exposure during their service.

Learn more about veterans and mesothelioma


Thousands of products were manufactured using asbestos fibers. Asbestos may be found in insulation, drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, cements, paint and more. Most homes and commercial buildings built before 1980 contain asbestos products.

Search our asbestos products index


Workers from practically all trades were likely exposed to asbestos fibers while on the job. Drywall tapers, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics and many other occupations may be at risk. While asbestos regulation was more relaxed in the past, today the law requires all employers to protect workers from asbestos and other job-related health risks.

See if your occupation was at risk for exposure

Job Sites

Asbestos exposure may occur while on the job. Many workplaces utilized the mineral in their products and facilities, placing millions of workers at risk for exposure.

Environmental exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are released into the air through mining, the disturbance of a natural asbestos deposit or the result of 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 disease has been rising.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center conducted a similar study in 2015 that highlighted the need to be more aware of environmental exposure in Nevada.

Northern California is also home to some of the largest naturally occurring deposits of asbestos.

9/11 Attack on the World Trade Center

The terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, released more than 2,000 tons of asbestos into the air, causing a sudden and very serious exposure problem for rescue, recovery and cleanup workers who remained at the site for months.

According to a 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, about 70 percent of those workers suffered new or worsened respiratory problems. It found that 28 percent of workers tested had abnormal lung function tests. Researchers continue to closely monitor those who worked in the rubble, along with nearby residents, for long-term health consequences related to asbestos and other toxic building materials.

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Risks from Nearby Asbestos Operations

Job sites where workers mined, handled or processed asbestos often contaminated the outside air with airborne fibers. As a result, people in nearby communities may face environmental exposures that increase the risk for serious health complications.

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A 2009 study tested the effects of environmental exposure in a population living near an asbestos manufacturing plant. The study examined rates of malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) and other asbestos-related conditions in Shubra El-Kheima, Egypt, an industrial city containing the Sigwart Company asbestos plant. It 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.

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 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.

Improper 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.

Secondhand Exposure

People can get an asbestos-related disease without ever working with or around the toxic mineral. Secondhand 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 secondhand exposure when asbestos use was high during the mid-20th century.

At that time, men comprised the majority of the industrial working class. The occupations within these industrial settings often required workers to handle asbestos-containing products. Workers returning home might carry fibers on their hair, skin and clothes and indirectly expose their families and others living with them.

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Occurrences of Secondhand Exposure

Secondhand exposure is the cause for a significant portion of mesothelioma cases among women and children. If children are exposed to asbestos indirectly at an early age, they may develop an asbestos-related disease in their adult years. There are four common forms of secondhand asbestos exposure.


The clothing of workers who handled asbestos products provided a significant risk for secondhand exposure. Because of the jagged structure of the fibers, the microscopic particles could easily attach to clothing. Anyone handling or washing these work clothes likely experienced indirect exposure.


If a worker didn’t change out of asbestos contaminated clothing before returning home, fibers could have become embedded in the couch, chairs, carpet, bed and other pieces of furniture.


If a worker came home with fibers attached to their hair, skin or clothes and later hugged their children or spouse, family members were likely indirectly exposed to the carcinogen. Some mesothelioma cases have developed from children sitting on the lap of their father or grandfather after he came home from work.

While family members didn’t have any direct contact with asbestos-containing products, the amount of dust brought home was enough to cause mesothelioma or a related disease later in life.

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. Researchers discovered five cases of mesothelioma among factory workers’ family members. Sources of asbestos dust were also found in the homes of former Patterson factory workers 20 years after the factory shut down.

Legal Claims for Secondhand Exposure

Like plaintiffs who are directly exposed to asbestos, claimants indirectly injured by asbestos 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.

John Panza Jr., diagnosed with mesothelioma after having secondhand exposure to asbestos

John Panza Jr., diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012.

For example, 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 plant where National Friction Products Corp. products were drilled and abraded. As a child, Panza helped his father wash his work clothes. In 2012, Panza filed a lawsuit against National Friction alleging he inhaled fibers from the company’s products that contaminated his father’s clothes.

In 2013, an Ohio jury found National Friction liable for Panza’s illness. It ordered the company to pay Panza and his wife $27.5 million. The award included $515,000 in economic damages, $12 million in noneconomic damages and $15 million for the wife’s loss of consortium claim.

Protecting Yourself and Loved Ones

Despite the continued presence of asbestos in the workplace and in everyday life, people can protect themselves by being vigilant.

Workers should use protective equipment provided by employers. It is important to follow proper safety procedures and workplace practices. Approved respirators should be worn when working around asbestos fibers.

It also is important to take precautions against bringing home any asbestos from work and endangering a family. Any clothing or shoes worn on the job should be left and cleaned at the job site. Showers should be taken before returning home.

Safety equipment and good practices today protect you against future asbestos exposure 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).

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Karen Selby, RN and Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center

Karen Selby joined in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

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