How Can You Be Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos exposure risk occurs when microscopic asbestos fibers from products such as automotive parts, building materials and industrial materials become airborne. Asbestos dust can stay in the air for hours before it settles, placing anyone nearby in danger of inhaling or ingesting the toxic mineral. 

If left undisturbed, asbestos fibers can settle in 48 to 72 hours. However, additional disturbances, even slight ones, can easily stir the fibers back into the air because they are lightweight. The danger of asbestos increases as the product ages. The small fibers can become loose with wear and enter the air for people to breathe. 

I’d go down to the boiler room where my dad worked. It was very dusty. There were chunks of gray, fibrous stuff. I didn’t know it was asbestos. I’d pick it up and play with it.

Most cases of asbestos exposure happen when people are at work. The material was popular across industries, used in thousands of domestic, commercial and industrial products. As the dangers of exposure become more well-known, most companies stopped using asbestos

By the 1980s, many mining operations and production of goods containing asbestos stopped. However, millions of older buildings in America still contain the original building materials made with asbestos. 

Key Facts About Asbestos Exposure
  • On-the-job exposure is the most common.
  • Construction, military, industrial and first responder workers are at high risk.
  • The construction industry is the occupation with the highest rate of exposure in the U.S.
  • Asbestos can easily become airborne if disturbed because it’s so light.
  • Asbestos fibers may take up to 48 to 72 hours to settle in an environment with few disturbances.

Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Inhaled asbestos fibers settle in and around the lungs, become lodged in place and cause scarring, inflammation and severe respiratory issues among other serious health risks. The body can eliminate certain asbestos particles, but a significant portion of these fibers may become permanently embedded within the lungs and lining of the lungs. 

This accumulation can have life-threatening consequences, including DNA damage and cancer. While no level of asbestos exposure is safe, most problems occur after years of repeated exposure. 

Organs impacted by asbestos exposure

Asbestos Fibers Enter the Esophagus.
Asbestos Fibers Enter the Esophagus

Asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swallowed. These inhaled or swallowed asbestos fibers can cause cancer development.

Asbestos Fibers enters the larynx.
Larynx

Asbestos is known to cause cancer of the voice box.

Asbestos Fibers embedded in the pleural membrane.
Pleural Membrane

Inhaled asbestos can cause cancer in the lungs’ lining known as pleural mesothelioma.

Asbestos Fibers in the lung tissue.
Lung Tissue

Lung cancer is the most common malignant asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos Fibers in the diaphragm.
Diaphragm

Asbestos-related cancer in this muscle can make breathing challenging.

Asbestos Fibers in the heart.
Heart

Asbestos can cause cancer in the heart sac, known as pericardial mesothelioma.

Asbestos Fibers in the abdomen.
Abdomen

Asbestos can cause cancer in the abdominal cavity’s lining known as peritoneal mesothelioma.

The Environmental Protection Agency, along with other federal agencies, implemented several laws to regulate the use and handling of asbestos, including banned and prohibited uses. In some cases, the ban is a gradual process with various industries given a defined period by which they must stop using the material. These restrictions aim to prevent future exposure and negative health outcomes. 

Despite these regulations, new cases of asbestos-related illness continue to emerge, as it normally takes between 20 and 60 years after initial exposure for symptoms to appear. This extended latency period means the disease can progress to late stages before symptoms alert the patient to a problem. In most cases, prolonged and heavy exposure leads to a shorter latency period. 

19,000

The number of people in the U.S. exposed to asbestos who The Mesothelioma Center has helped since 2017.

Conditions Related to Asbestos Exposure

Mesothelioma is one of the most well-known asbestos-related diseases, but prolonged exposure can cause other conditions. This includes lung cancer, pulmonary diseases and other types of cancer found elsewhere in the body.

Asbestos-Related Conditions
  • Asbestosis: Inflammation and progressive scarring of the lung tissue leads to difficulty breathing.
  • Atelectasis: Inflammation and scarring causes the pleural lining to fold in on itself.
  • Diffuse Pleural Thickening: Extensive scarring thickens the pleural lining of the lungs.
  • Laryngeal Cancer: The National Institutes of Health confirmed asbestos can cause laryngeal cancer.
  • Lung Cancer: Asbestos exposure causes about 4% of lung cancers.
  • Mesothelioma: This rare malignant cancer develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen.
  • Ovarian Cancer: 2012 studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined asbestos can cause ovarian cancer.
  • Pleural Effusion: A buildup of fluid around the lungs causes breathing difficulty.
  • Pleural Plaques: These are areas of fibrous thickening in the lining around the lungs.
  • Pleurisy: Exposure can cause severe inflammation of the pleural lining, also known as pleuritic pain.

Most asbestos-related diseases take decades to develop, but signs of asbestosis can show in just 10 years. Cancers caused by asbestos typically take 20-60 years to develop. Signs of asbestos-related disease include breathing difficulty, chest pain and a range of other cancer symptoms. 

Where Asbestos Exposure Occurs

Occupational exposure is the primary way people come into contact with asbestos. This includes direct and indirect exposure to asbestos-containing products. When workers bring asbestos fibers home on their clothing or bodies, their family members are at risk from secondary exposure. Other cases come from naturally occurring deposits of the mineral.

Workers in occupations that use or disturb asbestos-containing products have a high risk of exposure, particularly construction workers. Consumers who use cosmetics containing asbestos-contaminated talc are also at risk. 

Another source of exposure is environmental and includes people who live near natural deposits or contaminated job sites. Certain disasters, natural or human-caused, can disturb asbestos and increase this risk. 

Asbestos Products

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.

Thousands of products manufactured by asbestos companies put consumers at risk. Prior to the 1980s, asbestos products were a favored choice in most U.S. homes and commercial buildings. The toxic fiber is commonly found in insulation, drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, cement, paint and more. Asbestos in cars is another problem because the automotive industry uses it in brakes, clutches and other friction products. 

Flooding and other natural disasters can release asbestos from a variety of building materials and other products into wastewater, leading to contaminated waterways and asbestos in the water supply

Seemingly innocent products that people use every day have long-term health consequences if these products contain asbestos. Consumer goods and home products including hairdryers, toasters and oven mitts were sources of contamination in the past. Today, talc presents a risk. This mineral is often interlaced with asbestos, risking contamination in baby powder, makeup and numerous children’s products. 

Asbestos Risk on the Job

Before the asbestos bans and regulations, many industries used asbestos in their products and facilities, putting millions of workers at risk. U.S. workers in mining, heavy industry and all construction trades were often exposed to asbestos fibers while on the job.

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

Military Service Exposure

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

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. 

Naval shipyard workers were another high-risk population of military personnel. They came into contact with the toxic material while constructing, repairing and decommissioning Navy vessels. 

It was common to construct buildings on military bases using asbestos products. Some of these still present an exposure risk to those living and working on military bases to this day. Military service members who developed asbestos-related diseases through their service can find help to obtain benefits and health care through the VA. 

Environmental Exposure

Environmental asbestos exposure happens when the fibers get released through mining activities, by disturbing a natural asbestos deposit, during the processing of the ore or when natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes strike. There is also a high risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers if workers who remove and dispose of asbestos-containing materials fail to follow proper abatement procedures.

A prime example of disaster-related exposure is the 2001 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center. The destruction of the two towers released tons of pulverized asbestos into the air in New York City, creating a sudden and very serious exposure risk for rescue, recovery and cleanup workers.

Researchers continue to follow these workers and nearby residents to monitor them for long-term health consequences after an earlier Environmental Health Perspectives study reported that 70% of these workers developed new or worsened respiratory problems in the years that followed the attack. About 28% showed abnormal lung function on tests. 

The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health published a study in 2016 that showed a decline in occupational asbestos exposure but a rise in environmental exposure in areas with naturally occurring deposits such as Northern California. The study also detailed how this exposure can explain the increase in asbestos-related diseases in women and younger patients.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center conducted a similar study in 2015 highlighting the need for greater awareness of environmental exposure in Nevada. 

Job sites that use asbestos are another mesothelioma risk factor. Operations that stir asbestos fibers into the air put people who live in nearby communities in danger.

A 2021 study published in Environmental Health showed a rise in mesothelioma cases in people living near an asbestos cement plant in northwest Italy. Even short-term asbestos exposure has caused disease in those who live near natural deposits or encounter it on the job. 

Learn More About Asbestos Exposure in Your State

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary exposure, also called indirect exposure, is just as dangerous as firsthand exposure. This exposure happens when asbestos workers bring fibers home on their clothing, hair and skin. Family members and others living in the residence inhale the fibers, putting them at risk of developing a related disease. 

While secondary exposure happened more often before the regulations set in place in the 1980s, new cases continue to appear as women and children who experienced asbestos exposure decades ago begin to develop symptoms.

Those at the greatest risk of secondary exposure in the home were women who laundered contaminated work clothes. Others who shared workspace with people who worked directly with the material experienced secondary exposure. 

Protecting Yourself, Loved Ones from Asbestos Exposure

Today’s asbestos laws aim to protect workers by requiring all employers to provide protective equipment and implement proper safety protocols to limit job-related health risks from asbestos exposure. An example is the requirement for workers to wear approved respirators when working around asbestos fibers. Enforcing the correct safety equipment and good practices today can protect workers from future asbestos problems. 

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.

It’s essential for anyone who encounters asbestos at work to take precautions to avoid bringing the fibers home. Workers should clean contaminated shoes and clothing at the job site and take a shower before returning home. Employers in at-risk industries must provide workers with the facilities to do so. 

Further precautions can limit your risk of coming into contact with airborne asbestos fibers. For example, if you have an older home, have it inspected by an accredited asbestos professional.

If your home has any damaged insulation or crumbling drywall, or you plan any remodeling, it’s a good idea to have the material tested for asbestos content and call in the proper abatement workers to remove it. Building materials that remain intact aren’t as dangerous because they don’t release asbestos fibers into the air. However, it can become a serious issue when the material begins to break down and create dust.

Survivor Story
Survivor Story
Carla Fasolo Pleural Mesothelioma

The Inspiring Spirit of Mesothelioma Survivor Carla Fasolo

“I couldn’t believe it. When I did my research and found out that they knew that that product, asbestos, caused aggressive cancer, I couldn’t believe that they were still putting it in things and houses,” Carla said. The dangers of asbestos are insidious. Fasolo’s mesothelioma was linked to a history of asbestos exposure. Carla recalls how frightening it was to discover her cancer.

Read Carla’s Story

How Workers Can Protect Themselves

If you suspect that your work conditions are unsafe or your employer isn’t taking the appropriate precautions to protect you from asbestos, take action by filing an anonymous complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA is part of the U.S. Department of Labor and monitors asbestos in the workplace. It issues fines or shuts down operations if an employer violates asbestos laws. 

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, another DOL component, takes anonymous complaints as well. This organization sets asbestos regulations and exposure limits for miners. It can perform inspections and issue fines as needed.

While unable to take action against an employer, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is a good source of information to educate workers about the dangers of asbestos and practices to prevent exposure. This organization is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Agencies and Available Resources

The EPA is responsible for setting asbestos regulations and can enforce fines and criminal penalties for violators. ATSDR also provides valuable educational resources on asbestos and how to recognize the signs of asbestos-related disease.

CPSC works to inform the public about the risk of asbestos exposure in the home and from contaminated consumer products. 

Another potential resource is your local department of environmental quality. Reach out to discover more information about resources specific to your area’s concerns. Contacting the appropriate authority to report unsafe conditions can safeguard you and others from dangerous exposure risks that could cause disease later in life. 

Dr. Jacques Fontaine and Dr. Andrea 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. The toxic mineral can also cause lung cancer and other diseases. There is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos, so it’s important for you to educate yourself on the dangers and common risks so you can take precautions.

What should you do if you were exposed to asbestos dust?

Anyone exposed to asbestos who experiences symptoms of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease should immediately contact a doctor for advice, testing and treatment. Mesothelioma doctors can perform screenings to prevent a misdiagnosis.

How much asbestos exposure is harmful?

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

Can you be exposed to asbestos from someone else?

It’s possible to experience secondary asbestos exposure through contact with someone else. Workers can bring home asbestos fibers on their clothes and put their family members at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.

Can I claim any compensation after asbestos exposure?

Anyone with a history of asbestos exposure who shows signs of an asbestos-related disease may be eligible to claim mesothelioma compensation from:

If you experienced exposure and developed a health condition from it, you could benefit from speaking with a lawyer who specializes in asbestos-related diseases. The right attorney can provide you with advice and argue your case on your behalf to secure you the compensation you deserve.

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