How Can You Be Exposed to Asbestos?

You can be at risk of asbestos exposure when microscopic asbestos fibers in products, automotive parts and building and industrial materials 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 environment with few 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.

Many people are exposed through their occupations. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, but most exposures are from its use in thousands of domestic, commercial and industrial products. A majority of U.S. companies stopped using asbestos in the 1980s, but asbestos-containing materials remain in millions of older buildings in America.

Asbestos-related disease is 100% 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

Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

When asbestos fibers are inhaled they can lodge in and around the lungs, leading to the development of scarring, inflammation and severe respiratory issues. This accumulation of fibers can have life-threatening consequences, including the onset of cancer. While the body can eliminate certain asbestos particles, a significant portion of these fibers may become permanently embedded within the lungs and lung lining.

Diagram showing how asbestos exposure affects the body
Diagram shows how asbestos particles travel and affect the body after exposure.

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 creates cellular changes that can lead to cancer and other diseases.

Exposure to asbestos can cause four different types of cancer and several pulmonary conditions.

Asbestos-Related Conditions Include:

  • Mesothelioma: This rare malignant cancer develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen.
  • Lung Cancer: 4% of all lung cancer cases are related to asbestos exposure.
  • Ovarian Cancer: It was confirmed in 2012 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that asbestos can cause ovarian cancer.
  • Laryngeal Cancer: It was confirmed in 2006 by the National Institutes of Health that asbestos can cause laryngeal cancer.
  • Asbestosis: This condition causes inflammation and progressive scarring of lung tissue, leading to breathing difficulty.
  • Pleural Plaques: These are areas of fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs.
  • Pleural Effusion: This buildup of fluid around the lungs causes breathing difficulty.
  • Diffuse Pleural Thickening: Extensive scarring thickens the pleural lining of the lungs.
  • Pleurisy: This condition causes severe inflammation of the pleural lining, also known as pleuritic pain.
  • Atelectasis: Inflammation and scarring cause the pleural lining to fold in on itself.

It may take anywhere from 10 to 70 years after 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.

Where Asbestos Exposure Occurs

People are primarily exposed to asbestos in the workplace through direct or indirect exposure to asbestos products. Workers may also bring asbestos home and cause secondary asbestos exposure among family members. Another source of exposure is naturally occurring deposits of asbestos.

Asbestos exposure can occur if you work in certain occupations or if you use or disturb asbestos-containing products, including cosmetics containing asbestos-contaminated talc. It can also happen if you live near contaminated job sites or natural asbestos deposits. A manmade or natural disaster may also result in asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Products

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 can travel through wastewater 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 in brakes, clutches and other friction products. These products have placed workers in automotive garages, gas stations and vehicle depots at significant risk of asbestos exposure.

Hankscraft Asbestos-Lined Baby Bottle Warmer
The vintage Hankscraft automobile baby bottle warmer was created to warm an infant’s milk during automobile travel. The asbestos insulation lining was easily capable of receiving damage.

Asbestos Risk on the Job

Many workplaces in the U.S. used asbestos in their products and facilities, putting millions of workers at risk. 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.

High-Risk Job Sites

Today, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics, chloralkali workers, oilfield brake mechanics and many other occupations remain at risk.

Military Service Exposure

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 among the most at risk. Naval shipyard workers were also exposed while constructing, repairing and decommissioning Navy vessels.

Buildings on military bases were commonly constructed with asbestos products and still present an exposure risk to service members working at and living on military bases. The VA offers benefits and health care to veterans with service-connected asbestos-related diseases.

WWII servicemen surrounded by asbestos cement walls
WWII-era servicemen in uniform enjoying themselves in an asbestos-walled building.

Environmental Exposure

Environmental exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are released through:

  • Mining
  • 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 such as Northern California, where there are large naturally occurring deposits of asbestos.

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 exposures in Nevada.

Learn More About Asbestos Exposure in Your State

Exposure Risks from Nearby Asbestos Operations

Job sites that use asbestos often contaminate the air with airborne dust, making them a risk factor for mesothelioma. People in nearby communities face environmental exposure that puts them at risk of related diseases.

In 2021, a study was published in Environmental Health showing an increase in mesothelioma among community members living near an asbestos cement plant in northwest Italy. Community use of asbestos materials originating from the plant was also associated with an increased risk of mesothelioma in addition to the risk of living close to the plant. 

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.

Asbestos and the 9/11 Attack on the World Trade Center

The 2001 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center released tons of pulverized asbestos into the air in 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 after their 9/11 exposure, and about 28% had abnormal lung function tests.

Researchers continue to closely follow those who worked in the rubble. They also monitor 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 (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 could 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 from Exposure

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 must be worn when working around asbestos fibers.

It is also important to take precautions to prevent 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 can protect you against future asbestos problems.

How Workers Can Protect Themselves

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 is responsible for monitoring asbestos in the workplace, and it has the authority to issue fines and shut down operations when asbestos laws are violated.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, also known as MSHA, sets asbestos regulations and exposure limits to protect miners at risk of asbestos exposure. Miners may file anonymous complaints to report asbestos violations. The administration’s Mine Safety and Health Enforcement department has the authority to inspect mines and issue fines and citations for asbestos violations.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH, helps set asbestos standards and regulations through scientific research. The institute has no enforcement power, but it helps educate workers on the dangers of asbestos and how to prevent exposure.

Other Agencies Offering Asbestos Resources

Your local department of environmental quality may also provide additional resources tailored to the concerns of your area.

Dr. Jacques Fontaine and Dr. Virginia Wolf
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Common Questions About Asbestos Exposure

Can I get cancer from asbestos exposure?

The primary cause of mesothelioma cancer is asbestos exposure. There is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos, and the toxic mineral can also cause lung cancer and other malignancies.

What should you do if exposed to asbestos dust?

If you have been exposed to asbestos and are experiencing symptoms of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases, you should contact a doctor immediately. Mesothelioma doctors can adequately screen for asbestos-related illnesses and prevent a misdiagnosis.

How much asbestos exposure is harmful?

There is no safe amount of asbestos exposure. Even one-time asbestos exposure can lead to asbestos-related diseases such as pleural thickening, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Can you be exposed to asbestos from someone else?

Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are carried by someone else. For example, blue-collar workers who bring home asbestos on their clothes can unknowingly increase the risk of family members developing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.

Can I claim any compensation after asbestos exposure?

If you have a history of asbestos exposure and show signs of an asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible to claim mesothelioma compensation from: