Last modified: February 26, 2021
Understanding Degrees of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos-related diseases kill thousands of Americans every year. Past asbestos exposure resulted in almost 40,000 U.S. deaths in 2016 alone, according to the International Commission of Occupational Health.
It’s wise to be alert to the dangers of asbestos exposure, and it is understandable to worry if you discover you have been exposed to asbestos. But it is also important to discern between different degrees of asbestos exposure.
Short-Term Exposure Fast Facts
- Light, short-term exposure rarely causes disease
- A one-off exposure from do-it-yourself renovation is not a major risk
- Asbestos exposure is cumulative, so short-term exposures can add up
- Disasters may cause extreme asbestos-exposure events
Asbestos has a deadly reputation, but many people only vaguely understand why the toxic mineral is dangerous.
Some people may think asbestos is a chemical that can accumulate in the food chain or be absorbed through the skin, like certain pesticides. People may even worry they will get sick just by being near an asbestos-containing product, as if asbestos were radioactive.
Fortunately, neither of these things is true. In reality, hazardous asbestos exposure happens when someone inhales or swallows asbestos dust.
When asbestos-related diseases develop, it is usually because millions of microscopic mineral fibers have accumulated in a person’s lung tissue or a membrane lining in the body.
How Much Asbestos Exposure Is Harmful?
No amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe, and people should always take precaution to avoid inhaling toxic dust.
However, most asbestos-related diseases arise only after many years of regular exposure. An extremely intense short-term exposure also heightens the risk of disease later in life.
For example, a history of working with insulation products in the 1950s or 1960s is a major risk factor. Even if the work involved only a little exposure at a time, a few months of this would add up to a lot of inhaled asbestos dust.
Most cases of asbestos cancer and asbestosis trace back to this type of occupational asbestos exposure.
Family members also experienced regular exposure from workers bringing asbestos dust home on their clothes. This is called secondhand asbestos exposure, and it has been linked to many tragic deaths as well.
After asbestos was regulated in the 1970s and 1980s, these types of long-term exposure became less of a problem in America. But because asbestos-related diseases usually take decades to develop, new cases will continue to surface because of routine asbestos exposure long ago.
In addition, it is possible for a single event to cause an extreme amount of asbestos exposure.
For example, the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11 created an enormous cloud of toxic dust. Residents and rescue workers exposed to it have an elevated risk of developing cancer.
How Bad Is One-Time Exposure to Asbestos?
One-time asbestos exposure generally is not a serious risk, except in extreme circumstances where toxic dust clouds the air. Asbestos-related diseases are usually caused by months or years of regular workplace exposure.
If you were exposed to asbestos for one day, the risk to your health depends on how much dust you inhaled.
- Was the asbestos-containing product damaged or crumbly?
- Was it scraped, smashed, drilled or sawed?
- Was the area poorly ventilated?
If the answer is yes, and you did not take safety precautions, then you likely inhaled a substantial amount of asbestos dust.
Don’t panic. Asbestos exposure will not have any immediate impact on your health. If it ever affects you, it will take years for symptoms to arise. Make sure your doctors are aware of the event so it is in your medical history. Avoid any further asbestos exposure in the future.
It’s not uncommon for homeowners to do a renovation and then realize afterward that they disturbed asbestos products. Fortunately, the risk from this is low.
In many places, there are already trace amounts of asbestos in the air. In the countryside, it comes from the erosion of rock formations. In urban areas, it comes from ongoing demolition and construction work happening all around.
People rarely get sick from light, occasional asbestos exposure. Being careless about one renovation will not significantly increase your risk, but you must learn from the experience and avoid making the same mistakes again.
Risk Factors for Asbestos-Related Diseases
There are several factors that determine the likelihood of asbestos exposure making someone sick.
- Dose of Asbestos: The worst exposure happens when the air is visibly cloudy with raw asbestos fibers.
- Duration of Exposure: Working or living in a contaminated environment for months or years is a major risk factor.
- Type of Asbestos: Common white asbestos (chrysotile) is confirmed to be dangerous, but the other types of asbestos are suspected to be even worse.
- Genetics: Not all people with heavy asbestos exposure develop a related illness. Researchers believe certain genetic mutations may also play a role.
- Smoking History: Cigarette smoke and asbestos have a synergistic effect, multiplying a person’s risk of lung cancer.
How long after exposure to asbestos do symptoms appear?
Asbestos-related diseases usually take at least 20 years to develop after exposure. When a disease develops, symptoms arise gradually and may seem like common cold symptoms at first.
Can short-term asbestos exposure cause mesothelioma?
Short-term exposure to asbestos dust can lead to mesothelioma and other forms of cancer. But unless the exposure is intense, the risk of cancer from short-term exposure is very low.
How to Protect Yourself from Asbestos Exposure
To protect yourself from asbestos exposure, be aware of what products used to be manufactured with asbestos. Have old building materials tested for asbestos if you are not sure. Rely on asbestos abatement professionals to perform removal or encapsulation work.
Occupational asbestos exposure is still a hazard for many American workers. Demolition workers and firefighters may be exposed to asbestos in old buildings. Mechanics may be exposed to asbestos in vehicle and machine parts imported from overseas.
If you are concerned about being exposed to asbestos at work, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration may be able to help.
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