Understanding Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are inhaled, where they may get trapped in the lungs or abdomen. Exposure to asbestos is most common at the workplace but is also common in the military and even in the home.
Being exposed to asbestos can lead to asbestos-related diseases including pleural plaques, asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
Asbestos is a mineral that was used in thousands of domestic, commercial and industrial products.
Occupational exposure is the No. 1 cause of asbestos disease. Occupations in manual labor and skilled trades presented the highest risk of asbestos exposure. Workers in construction, shipyards and factories faced a high likelihood of exposure on the job.
U.S. military veterans were among the most vulnerable of all because of the military’s past reliance on asbestos products, especially on Navy ships.
How Does Exposure Happen?
Asbestos exposure happens when microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne. The fibers are inhaled or ingested by anyone within the vicinity. Fibers can remain airborne for hours, placing anyone nearby in danger.
The body can get rid of some fibers. Unfortunately, many fibers become stuck in tissue such as the lungs.
No level of asbestos exposure is considered safe. But, most problems arise after years of repeated and long-term exposures to the carcinogen.
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.”
The fibers accumulate in human tissue through repeat exposure and cause inflammation and damage. Over time, this damage causes cellular changes that lead to cancer and other diseases. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure multiplies the hazard, creating a greater risk to health.
Most people are exposed through their occupation. Home and commercial renovation or remodeling is also 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.
Environmental and secondary 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.
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Health Risks of Exposure
Once inhaled or swallowed, the fibers can become trapped in the respiratory or digestive tract. The body can get rid of some asbestos fibers, but many fibers become stuck. The stuck fibers slowly cause inflammation and DNA damage that leads to disease decades later.
Asbestos causes cancer and noncancerous diseases.
The 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 percent 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.
The noncancerous conditions caused by asbestos include:
- Asbestosis: Asbestosis involves inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue. It prevents the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally.
- Pleural plaques: These are the most common sign of asbestos exposure. They involve fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs.
- Pleural Effusion: A buildup of fluid around the lungs that causes difficulty breathing.
- Diffuse Pleural Thickening: Extensive scarring thickens the pleural lining of the lungs. It causes chest pain and breathing issues.
- Pleuritis: Severe inflammation of the pleural lining, also known as pleuritic pain.
- Atelactasis: Inflammation and scarring cause the pleural lining to fold in on itself, causing the lungs to underinflate.
It takes around 10-50 years after the initial exposure for asbestos-related diseases to develop. Asbestosis can develop in as few as 10 years. Related cancers take 20-50 years to develop.
Incidence rates of these diseases have remained steady for decades, despite regulations on asbestos being implemented in the 1970s.
- The National Cancer Institute says 2,000 to 3,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with mesothelioma.
- An estimated 200,000 people in the country are diagnosed with asbestosis annually, according to American Family Physician.
- An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Americans die annually from an asbestos-related disease, according to the EWG Action Fund.
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Where Exposure Occurs
Exposure can occur if you:
- Live near job sites or contaminated environments
- Use asbestos-containing products
- Work in certain occupations, including the U.S. military
- Experience manmade or natural disasters
Every branch of the U.S. armed forces used 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. Thousands of veterans who worked on the following vessels got sick because of asbestos they encountered during their service.
- Aircraft Carriers
- Auxiliary Vessels
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 homes and commercial buildings built before 1980 contain asbestos products.
Workers from all trades were likely exposed to asbestos fibers while on the job. Drywall tapers, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics and many other occupations remain at risk. 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.
Asbestos exposure may occur while on the job. Many workplaces used the mineral in their products and facilities. Millions of workers were put at risk.
9/11 Attack on the World Trade Center
The terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, released tons of asbestos insulation into the air. 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 percent of them suffered new or worsened respiratory problems. About 28 percent of workers 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.
Environmental exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are released into the air 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 some of the largest naturally occurring deposits of asbestos.
Risks from Nearby Asbestos Operations
Job sites that use asbestos often contaminate the outside air with airborne fibers. People in nearby communities face environmental exposure that puts them at risk of related diseases.
A 2009 study published in the journal Atmospheric Pollution Research tested 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. 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.
Pleural mesothelioma was highest (2.8 percent) in the group with environmental asbestos exposure. 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 Asbestos Removal
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 asbestos-containing materials to minimize health risks.
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, men were more likely to work directly with asbestos products performing labor jobs. 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.
Common Questions and Answers
Can a One-Time Exposure to Asbestos Be Harmful?
Asbestos-related diseases are usually caused by months or years of regular workplace exposure. One-time asbestos exposure generally is not a serious risk, except in extreme circumstances where toxic dust clouds the air.
What Are the First Signs of Asbestos Poisoning?
Asbestos exposure does not cause immediate symptoms. It may lead to disease many years after exposure. Signs of asbestos-related disease include breathing difficulty, chest pain and a range of other cancer symptoms.
How Long After Exposure to Asbestos Do Symptoms Appear?
It takes at least 10 years for asbestos exposure to potentially cause disease. Most cases of asbestos-related cancer develop at least 20 years after the first exposure, with some cases developing up to 70 years later. Most people exposed to asbestos are never diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness.
How Long Do Asbestos Fibers Remain in the Air?
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. A simple way to safely clean asbestos dust is to spray it with water and wipe it away with wet wipes.
How Much Asbestos Exposure Is Dangerous?
No amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe. However, the worst danger comes from the accumulation of work-related asbestos exposure over months or years, rather than one-time exposure incidents.
Can You Smell Asbestos?
Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and it is unsafe to sniff a substance suspected of being asbestos. To detect asbestos, a sample of questionable material must be sent to a lab for testing.
Is There a Test for Asbestos Exposure?
There’s no easy way to test whether you have been exposed to asbestos. If you know you worked or lived in conditions with a lot of asbestos dust many years ago, then you should talk to your doctor about cancer screening. The same applies if you lived or frequently visited the house of someone with regular exposure.
How Do You Know if Your Home Has Asbestos?
It is safest to assume construction materials from before 1980 contain asbestos. Asbestos is dangerous when it gets into the air as dust. If you are planning to renovate or demolish older construction, consider consulting a home inspector or a professional trained in asbestos abatement first.
Protecting Yourself and Loved Ones
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 asbestos from work. Any clothing or shoes worn on the job should be left and cleaned at the job site. Showers should be taken 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).
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Last Modified May 1, 2019