Asbestos exposure can lead to serious health problems, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer. Exposure 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.
Asbestos is a mineral that is naturally resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion. These qualities made it a great insulator and fireproofing material. Asbestos was incorporated into thousands of products used in domestic, commercial and industrial settings.
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.
Those who worked in construction, shipyards, power plants, oil refineries and steels mills also faced the likelihood of high asbestos 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.
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.
Asbestos disease starts with the inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers. While no level of asbestos exposure is considered safe, most problems arise after years of repeated and long-term exposures to the carcinogen.
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.
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 a vessel, the 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.
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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.
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.
Asbestosis: Asbestosis is characterized by inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue, which prevents the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally.
Pleural plaques: These are the most common indication of asbestos exposure. They are characterized by 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 and 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 reports that approximately 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.
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 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. Since that time, thousands of veterans who worked on the following vessels have suffered illnesses related to asbestos exposure during their service.
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.
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. 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.
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.
The terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, released tons of asbestos insulation 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 2006 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, 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 follow those working in the rubble, along with nearby residents, for long-term health consequences related to asbestos and other toxic building materials.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His specialty is interviewing top mesothelioma specialists and researchers, reporting the latest news at mesothelioma cancer centers and talking with survivors and caregivers. Read More
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