Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of serious respiratory diseases and cancers, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and other conditions. Asbestos exposure is most commonly related to occupational, environmental and secondhand factors.

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.

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How Exposure Happens

Asbestos exposure occurs when someone inhales or swallows asbestos fibers. Just about everyone breathes in asbestos from the outside air, but these trace amounts rarely cause health problems. While no level of asbestos exposure is considered safe, most asbestos-related illnesses arise after heavy, repeated exposures.

Harmful exposures happen in a wide range of occupational settings. Construction work and home renovations can be especially hazardous because many common building materials contain asbestos. When asbestos products start to deteriorate, or someone cuts, sands, drills or otherwise disturbs them, microscopic fibers enter the air.

For instance, the sandblasting practices of Alaska-based shipbuilding and repair facility Seward Ship's Drydock have come under fire by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC). The ADEC issued a notice of violation to Seward Ship's Drydock for uncontrolled "fugitive particulate emissions" at its sandblasting operations. If workers were sandblasting asbestos-containing materials such as paint, insulation or joint compounds off of a vessel, the asbestos fibers released were no longer confined to the sandblasted area and possibly inhaled by individuals elsewhere in the shipyard.

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

Health Risks of Exposure

Over time, asbestos fibers accumulate in the lungs and cause scarring and inflammation. This makes breathing increasingly difficult, and can even lead to cancer and other illnesses. Symptoms of these diseases may not appear until 10 to 50 years after the initial exposure occurred.

Each year, approximately 2,000 to 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. About 2,000 to 3,200 people die from asbestos-related lung cancer annually.

An estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. currently are living with asbestosis, an inflammatory lung condition caused by inhaling asbestos. Many other cancers and serious conditions have been linked to exposure. The conditions may be found below.

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.

  • Military

    Asbestos was used in nearly every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. The most common risks for asbestos exposure resulted from insulation used in 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.

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  • 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.

    Many homes and buildings built before 1980 contain asbestos products. When left undisturbed, these materials rarely pose a health risk. But if they are disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibers go airborne and may cause harmful exposures. By law, only qualified professionals can test for asbestos or remove asbestos materials from the home.

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  • 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. 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.

    Federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitor and regulate workplace asbestos exposure. If you think your work conditions are unsafe, or your employer isn’t adequately protecting you from asbestos, file an anonymous complaint with OSHA.

    Find out if your occupation was at risk for exposure
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  • 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.

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  • Environmental

    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. The small town of Libby, Montana, was greatly affected by a contaminated vermiculite mine that operated and processed ore until 1992.

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    The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 released more than 2,000 tons of asbestos in the surrounding area. Some first responders were diagnosed with mesothelioma and died from the disease, which usually takes decades to develop after exposure. Hurricane Katrina is another case of environmental exposure. The costly hurricane damaged thousands of older, contaminated homes and raised concerns about exposure during hurricane cleanup efforts.

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Risks from Nearby Asbestos Operations

Jobsites where workers mine, handle or process asbestos often contaminate 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.

Asbestos Cover-Up

Find out who concealed asbestos risks from their employees.

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.

Disorder Percent Occupationally Exposed Percent Environmentally Exposed Percent Not 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
Totals 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. Totals adjusted for margin of error.


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.

Secondary Exposure

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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.

Common forms of secondary asbestos exposure


The 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. Whoever handled and washed these work clothes likely experienced secondary exposure.

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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.

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If a worker came home with fibers attached to their hair, skin or clothes and later hugged 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 he came home from work.

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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.

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.

Compensation for Asbestos Exposure

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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.

John Panza Jr.

John Panza Jr., diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012.

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.

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Karen Selby is a registered nurse and a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. She worked in several subspecialties within nursing before joining in 2009.

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