How Can You Be Exposed to Asbestos?
You can be at risk of asbestos exposure when microscopic asbestos fibers in products, automotive parts and building and industrial materials become airborne. The toxic mineral dust can remain in the air for hours, placing anyone nearby in danger of inhaling or ingesting it.
In an environment with few 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.
Many people are exposed through their occupations. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, but most exposures are from its use in thousands of domestic, commercial and industrial products. A majority of U.S. companies stopped using asbestos in the 1980s, but asbestos-containing materials remain in millions of older buildings in America.
“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.”
Dr. Ken Takahashi
Director of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute
Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can become trapped in the body’s respiratory or digestive tract. The body can get rid of some asbestos fibers, but many fibers become stuck permanently.
No level of asbestos exposure is considered safe. However, most problems arise after years of repeated and long-term exposure to the carcinogen.
When asbestos fibers accumulate in human tissue through repeat exposure, they cause inflammation and DNA damage. Over time, this damage creates cellular changes that can lead to cancer and other diseases.
Exposure to asbestos can cause four different types of cancer and several pulmonary conditions.
Asbestos-Related Conditions Include:
- Mesothelioma: This rare malignant cancer develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen.
- Lung Cancer: 4% of all lung cancer cases are related to asbestos exposure.
- Ovarian Cancer: It was confirmed in 2012 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that asbestos can cause ovarian cancer.
- Laryngeal Cancer: It was confirmed in 2006 by the National Institutes of Health that asbestos can cause laryngeal cancer.
- Asbestosis: This condition causes inflammation and progressive scarring of lung tissue, leading to breathing difficulty.
- Pleural Plaques: These are areas of fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs.
- Pleural Effusion: This buildup of fluid around the lungs causes breathing difficulty.
- Diffuse Pleural Thickening: Extensive scarring thickens the pleural lining of the lungs.
- Pleurisy: This condition causes severe inflammation of the pleural lining, also known as pleuritic pain.
- Atelectasis: Inflammation and scarring cause the pleural lining to fold in on itself.
It may take anywhere from 10 to 70 years after initial exposure for asbestos-related diseases to develop. Asbestosis can develop in as few as 10 years. Related cancers usually take 20-50 years to develop.
Signs of asbestos-related disease include breathing difficulty, chest pain and a range of other cancer symptoms.
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Where Asbestos Exposure Occurs
People are primarily exposed to asbestos in the workplace through direct or indirect exposure to asbestos products. Workers may also bring asbestos home and cause secondary asbestos exposure among family members. Another source of exposure is naturally occurring deposits of asbestos.
Asbestos exposure can occur if you work in certain occupations or if you use or disturb asbestos-containing products, including cosmetics containing asbestos-contaminated talc. It can also happen if you live near contaminated job sites or natural asbestos deposits. A manmade or natural disaster may also result in asbestos exposure.
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 U.S. homes and commercial buildings built before 1980 contain asbestos products.
These asbestos-containing construction products can travel through wastewater after flooding and other natural disasters. In this way, construction products can contaminate waterways with asbestos in the water supply.
Asbestos in automobiles and transportation materials continues to be a source of contamination in brakes, clutches and other friction products. These products have placed workers in automotive garages, gas stations and vehicle depots at significant risk of asbestos exposure.
Search Our Asbestos Products Index
Asbestos Risk on the Job
Many workplaces in the U.S. used asbestos in their products and facilities, putting millions of workers at risk. Before asbestos safety regulations were enforced, U.S. workers in mining, heavy industry and all construction trades were often exposed to asbestos fibers while on the job.
High-Risk Job Sites
- Automotive Repair Shops
- Chemical Plants
- Chloralkali Plants
- Construction Sites
- Metal Works
- Power Plants
Today, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics, chloralkali workers, oilfield brake mechanics and many other occupations remain at risk.
See If Your Occupation Was At Risk For Exposure
Military Service Exposure
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 among the most at risk. Naval shipyard workers were also exposed while constructing, repairing and decommissioning Navy vessels.
Buildings on military bases were commonly constructed with asbestos products and still present an exposure risk to service members working at and living on military bases. The VA offers benefits and health care to veterans with service-connected asbestos-related diseases.
Learn More About Veterans and Mesothelioma
Environmental exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are released 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 such as Northern California, where there are large naturally occurring deposits of asbestos.
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 exposures in Nevada.
Exposure Risks from Nearby Asbestos Operations
Job sites that use asbestos often contaminate the air with airborne dust, making them a risk factor for mesothelioma. People in nearby communities face environmental exposure that puts them at risk of related diseases.
In 2021, a study was published in Environmental Health showing an increase in mesothelioma among community members living near an asbestos cement plant in northwest Italy. Community use of asbestos materials originating from the plant was also associated with an increased risk of mesothelioma in addition to the risk of living close to the plant.
Research shows that short-term asbestos exposure has caused mesothelioma in people who were exposed on the job and through secondhand exposure. Short-term exposure has also caused mesothelioma among people who lived near naturally occurring asbestos deposits.
Asbestos and the 9/11 Attack on the World Trade Center
The 2001 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center released tons of pulverized asbestos into the air in New York City. 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% of them suffered new or worsened respiratory problems after their 9/11 exposure, and about 28% had abnormal lung function tests.
Researchers continue to closely follow those who worked in the rubble. They also monitor nearby residents for long-term health consequences.
Secondary Asbestos Exposure
People can get an asbestos-related disease without ever working with or around the toxic mineral. Secondary exposure (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 in the U.S., men were more likely to work directly with asbestos products. Secondary exposure could 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.
Improper Asbestos Removal
It is important to adhere to federal safety regulations regarding the removal and disposal of asbestos-containing materials to minimize health risks. There is a high risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers if proper abatement procedures are not followed.
Protecting Yourself and Loved Ones from Exposure
Today, the law requires all employers to protect workers from asbestos and other job-related health risks. Workers should use protective equipment provided by employers and follow proper safety procedures. Approved respirators must be worn when working around asbestos fibers.
It is also important to take precautions to prevent bringing asbestos home from work. Clean any contaminated clothing or shoes at the job site and take a shower before returning home to avoid endangering family members.
Safety equipment and good practices today can protect you against future asbestos problems.
How Workers Can Protect Themselves
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 is responsible for monitoring asbestos in the workplace, and it has the authority to issue fines and shut down operations when asbestos laws are violated.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration, also known as MSHA, sets asbestos regulations and exposure limits to protect miners at risk of asbestos exposure. Miners may file anonymous complaints to report asbestos violations. The administration’s Mine Safety and Health Enforcement department has the authority to inspect mines and issue fines and citations for asbestos violations.
- MSHA Online Complaint Form: https://www.msha.gov/support-resources/forms-online-filing/2018/05/23/hazardous-condition-complaint
- MSHA Complaint Line: 800-746-1553
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH, helps set asbestos standards and regulations through scientific research. The institute has no enforcement power, but it helps educate workers on the dangers of asbestos and how to prevent exposure.
- NIOSH Asbestos Website: www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asbestos/
- NIOSH Information Line: 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636)
Other Agencies Offering Asbestos Resources
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets asbestos regulations and enforces fines and criminal penalties for violating asbestos laws.
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry provides resources and education about asbestos exposure, how to avoid it and how to recognize signs of asbestos-related disease.
- Consumer Product Safety Commission provides information to the public about asbestos and how to avoid exposure to asbestos in the home and in consumer products.
Your local department of environmental quality may also provide additional resources tailored to the concerns of your area.
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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. There is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos, and the toxic mineral can also cause lung cancer and other malignancies.
- What should you do if exposed to asbestos dust?
If you have been exposed to asbestos and are experiencing symptoms of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases, you should contact a doctor immediately. Mesothelioma doctors can adequately screen for asbestos-related illnesses and prevent a misdiagnosis.
- How much asbestos exposure is harmful?
There is no safe amount of asbestos exposure. Even one-time asbestos exposure can lead to asbestos-related diseases such as pleural thickening, lung cancer or mesothelioma.
- Can you be exposed to asbestos from someone else?
Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are carried by someone else. For example, blue-collar workers who bring home asbestos on their clothes can unknowingly increase the risk of family members developing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.
- Can I claim any compensation after asbestos exposure?
If you have a history of asbestos exposure and show signs of an asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible to claim mesothelioma compensation from:
- Asbestos trust funds
- Mesothelioma lawsuits
- Mesothelioma settlements
Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The risk of contracting these diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled and the risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibres is also greater if you smoke.What is the most common exposure to asbestos? ›
The air pathway (inhalation of contaminated air) is the most important route of exposure to asbestos and the route that most commonly leads to illness. Ingestion is a less common exposure pathway, but exposure can occur after swallowing of material cleared from the lungs.What are the 3 most common asbestos disease? ›
- Pleural disease. Pleural plaques and pleural thickening are non-cancerous conditions affecting the outer lining of the lungs (the pleura). ...
- Mesothelioma. ...
- Asbestosis. ...
- Lung cancer.
Short-term asbestos exposure involves incidents that last less than a few days. Certain extreme events, such as the toxic exposure caused by the 9/11 attacks, can lead to a high risk of illness later in life.What causes asbestos in a house? ›
CEMENT SHEET, MILLBOARD, and PAPER used as insulation around furnaces and woodburning stoves. Repairing or removing appliances may release asbestos fibers. So may cutting, tearing, sanding, drilling, or sawing insulation. DOOR GASKETS in furnaces, wood stoves, and coal stoves.What is asbestos caused by? ›
The main cause of asbestosis is inhaling asbestos fibers or dust over a long period of time. This leads to the thickening and scarring of your lungs and pleura (very thin tissue, or membrane, that line your lungs). Breathing in asbestos particles in the air causes asbestosis.What are the 4 major asbestos related diseases? ›
- Lung cancer.
- Asbestosis, which causes permanent lung damage.
- Mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the chest and stomach lining.
- Cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, kidney and throat (larynx or oropharynx).
- Scarring of the lung lining.
There is no treatment that can reverse the damage done by asbestos, but certain steps can help slow down progression of the disease and relieve symptoms. Avoiding further exposure to asbestos and other irritants such as cigarette smoke will help slow down the disease from progressing.What are the first signs of asbestos exposure? ›
- shortness of breath.
- persistent cough.
- extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- pain in your chest or shoulder.
- in more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips.
Asbestos can be found in vinyl flooring, patching compounds and textured paints, sprayed acoustic ceilings, acoustic ceiling tiles, stove insulation, furnace insulation, pipe insulation, wall and ceiling insulation, roofing shingles and siding, home appliances, fire- retardant clothing, vehicle brake pads, and cement ...
In most cases, asbestosis symptoms take 20 to 30 years to present from the time someone is initially exposed to asbestos. The latency period depends on the duration and intensity of exposure.Can a blood test detect asbestos? ›
The answer is yes and no. A new blood test has the potential to detect mesothelioma a decade before patients exhibit any symptoms. However, it cannot detect mere asbestos exposure. In fact, some individuals who have been exposed to asbestos never develop the malignant cancer, while others do.Can you wash asbestos off your clothes? ›
You cannot easily wash asbestos out of clothes. Trying to do so can expose you to asbestos. Regular washing machines are not designed to clean asbestos-contaminated clothing. Trying to wash contaminated clothing will cause asbestos fibers to become airborne.Do N95 masks protect against asbestos? ›
A: An N95 mask is a disposable filtering facepiece respirator with two straps. When worn properly (with the mask making a tight seal with the user's face), it can protect against hazardous airborne particles. N95 masks do not protect against gases, vapors and cannot be used for asbestos, and they do not provide oxygen.Where is asbestos most commonly found in homes? ›
Asbestos is found in some vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives. Hot water and steam pipes in older houses may be coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape. Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.Do all old homes have asbestos? ›
Although asbestos is not fully banned in the United States, newer homes typically were not built with asbestos-containing materials. Homes built after 1980 are less likely to contain asbestos. However, stockpiles of asbestos-containing materials may have been used into the 1990s.Where is asbestos found naturally? ›
Asbestos is most commonly found in three rock types: serpentinites, altered ultramafic rocks, and some mafic rocks. Other rock types known to host asbestos include metamorphosed dolostones, metamorphosed iron formations, carbonatites, and alkalic intrusions.How do you test for asbestos exposure? ›
To diagnose diseases associated with asbestos, doctors may use a variety of lung tests. Imaging tests, including chest X-rays or computerized tomography (CT) scans, can help your doctor spot changes in your lungs. Your doctor may also ask you to blow big breaths into a machine to see how well your lungs are working.Can a CT scan detect asbestos? ›
CT scanning can also be used to regularly screen asbestos-exposed individuals, as these scans can sometimes detect asbestosis sooner than chest X-rays. While evaluating imaging scans, the doctor can also check the pleural lining around the lungs for signs of asbestos exposure.What two diseases are caused by asbestos? ›
Asbestos diseases are caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. The most common asbestos-related diseases are mesothelioma cancer, asbestosis, COPD, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, pleural effusions and atelectasis. Research shows asbestos can also cause lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.
Can You Live with Asbestosis? Yes, you can live with asbestosis for years, but there is no cure for this progressive condition. Patients live an average of 10 years with asbestosis. Lung transplantation is the best long-term treatment for asbestosis, but few patients qualify for this serious procedure.What kind of mask is used for asbestos? ›
Respirators must be equipped with HEPA filtered cartridges (color coded purple) or an N-100, P-100 or R-100 NIOSH rating. These cartridges are specific for filtering out asbestos fibers. Paper dust masks available at hardware stores do not filter out asbestos fibers and should not be used.Can asbestosis be cured? ›
There is no cure for asbestosis, as the damage to the lungs is irreversible. However, you can take steps to reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Asbestos is still used in some construction materials. Some previously marketed asbestos-containing products, such as amphibole-contaminated vermiculite insulation, remain in many homes and other buildings in the United States.What color is asbestos? ›
Tremolite ranges in color from a milky white to a dark green and is found in other minerals such as talc and vermiculite. Tremolite was previously used in a variety of products such as paint, sealants, insulation, roofing and plumbing materials.
Can asbestos be removed from the lungs? No known method exists to remove asbestos fibers from the lungs once they are inhaled. Some types of asbestos are cleared naturally by the lungs or break down in the lungs.What does asbestos exposure feel like? ›
Common symptoms of asbestos exposure are shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, a dry crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling and weight loss. The detectable symptoms of asbestos exposure can appear as early as 15 years after exposure, and they can reappear at any time during one's life.What does asbestosis feel like? ›
The common symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath, dry cough and swelling in the neck or face. It takes at least 20 years after asbestos exposure for asbestosis to develop and for symptoms to become noticeable.Can a chest xray show asbestosis? ›
Asbestosis is usually diagnosed by a careful medical history, exposure history and chest X-ray or CT scan that shows scarring of the lung tissues. This information, along with breathing tests, helps your doctor determine how severe your asbestosis is and how well your lung is functioning.Can a chest xray show mesothelioma? ›
X-rays, CT scans and MRIs are helpful diagnostic tools for detecting mesothelioma. Chest x-rays can show abnormalities in 2D that can indicate the presence of tumors. CT scans' advanced imaging offer much greater details and MRIs can help locate tumors significantly earlier than other scans.
Pleural is the most common type, representing about 75% of all mesothelioma cases. Out of all people with heavy, prolonged exposure to asbestos, 2% to 10% develop pleural mesothelioma. Symptoms of mesothelioma usually do not show until 20-60 years after asbestos exposure, which is when tumors have grown and spread.What are the 4 major asbestos-related diseases? ›
Respectively, these diseases are known as pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and testicular mesothelioma.How long does exposure to asbestos take to have an effect? ›
Generally, those who develop asbestos-related diseases show no signs of illness for a long time after exposure. It can take from 10 to 40 years or more for symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to appear (2).What are the first signs of asbestos exposure? ›
- Shortness of breath.
- Crackling sound in the lungs when breathing.
- Persistent, dry cough.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Pain or tightness in the chest.
- Blood in sputum.
- Swelling in the neck or face.
Pleural is the most common type, representing about 75% of all mesothelioma cases. Out of all people with heavy, prolonged exposure to asbestos, 2% to 10% develop pleural mesothelioma. Symptoms of mesothelioma usually do not show until 20-60 years after asbestos exposure, which is when tumors have grown and spread.Can a blood test detect asbestos? ›
The answer is yes and no. A new blood test has the potential to detect mesothelioma a decade before patients exhibit any symptoms. However, it cannot detect mere asbestos exposure. In fact, some individuals who have been exposed to asbestos never develop the malignant cancer, while others do.What is asbestos found in? ›
Asbestos can be found in vinyl flooring, patching compounds and textured paints, sprayed acoustic ceilings, acoustic ceiling tiles, stove insulation, furnace insulation, pipe insulation, wall and ceiling insulation, roofing shingles and siding, home appliances, fire- retardant clothing, vehicle brake pads, and cement ...How do you test for asbestos exposure? ›
- Chest X-ray. Advanced asbestosis appears as excessive whiteness in your lung tissue. ...
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. CT scans combine a series of X-ray views taken from many different angles to produce cross-sectional images of the bones and soft tissues inside your body.
Can asbestos be removed from the lungs? No known method exists to remove asbestos fibers from the lungs once they are inhaled. Some types of asbestos are cleared naturally by the lungs or break down in the lungs.Can you wash asbestos off your clothes? ›
You cannot easily wash asbestos out of clothes. Trying to do so can expose you to asbestos. Regular washing machines are not designed to clean asbestos-contaminated clothing. Trying to wash contaminated clothing will cause asbestos fibers to become airborne.
A: An N95 mask is a disposable filtering facepiece respirator with two straps. When worn properly (with the mask making a tight seal with the user's face), it can protect against hazardous airborne particles. N95 masks do not protect against gases, vapors and cannot be used for asbestos, and they do not provide oxygen.How do I clean my house after asbestos exposure? ›
Avoid activities that will cause asbestos to generate dust such as vacuuming or sweeping. Wet the area down completely and mop or wipe up the dust. If necessary, use a HEPA vacuum approved for use with asbestos fibers. Keep all family members out of the work area, or seal the area.What is the treatment for asbestos exposure? ›
There is no treatment that can reverse the damage done by asbestos, but certain steps can help slow down progression of the disease and relieve symptoms. Avoiding further exposure to asbestos and other irritants such as cigarette smoke will help slow down the disease from progressing.What kind of mask is used for asbestos? ›
Respirators must be equipped with HEPA filtered cartridges (color coded purple) or an N-100, P-100 or R-100 NIOSH rating. These cartridges are specific for filtering out asbestos fibers. Paper dust masks available at hardware stores do not filter out asbestos fibers and should not be used.How long does asbestos stay in the body? ›
These microscopic particles penetrate the tissues in the lining surrounding bodily organs and remain there indefinitely. Pleural mesothelioma is the most diagnosed asbestos-related cancer; however, three other types can affect other organs of the body.How long does asbestos stay in the air for? ›
The toxic mineral dust can remain in the air for hours, placing anyone nearby in danger of inhaling or ingesting it. In an environment with few 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.Can a single exposure to asbestos cause mesothelioma? ›
One-time exposure to asbestos can cause diseases, including mesothelioma cancer. Researchers have found repeated exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing asbestos-related cancers. The risk to individuals who have a one-time exposure to asbestos is generally lower compared to long-term or repeated exposure.