Asbestos Exposure

Expert Fact Checked

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Francis Perry Wilson, M.D. Medical Reviewer

Asbestos exposure happens when people come in close contact with the toxic mineral and inhale or ingest the fibers. Exposure can happen at work, at home, in the military or through various asbestos products. Asbestos exposure can lead to diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Key Facts on Asbestos Exposure

mesothelioma diagnoses in the United States from 1999 – 2019


American lives lost due to asbestos related diseases each year


of asbestos is legal in certain products within the United States


asbestos exposure is dangerous

01. Asbestos Exposure Overview

What Is Asbestos Exposure?

Asbestos exposure occurs when people inhale or ingest asbestos fibers. This can happen when the microscopic fibers become airborne. Asbestos fibers were commonly used in various products, such as insulation and other building materials. When these materials deteriorate or are disturbed, they may release asbestos dust.

Asbestos exposure was common in industrial, manufacturing and military settings. Being exposed to asbestos while at work is called occupational asbestos exposure. Individuals who did not work around asbestos may be exposed through secondhand exposure. For example, someone may carry home asbestos fibers on their belongings, which family members or roommates may inhale.

Asbestos Fibers

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. It is heat and fire-resistant, which made it a useful additive to various products.

Learn More About Asbestos Fibers

Once asbestos enters the body, it can become embedded in organs and sensitive tissues, like the lining of the lungs. This can cause irritation. Over time, scar tissue and eventually tumors may develop, leading to cancers like mesothelioma.

02. Asbestos Dangers

Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?

Asbestos is dangerous because it can cause serious health issues, such as cancer. The dangers of asbestos are highest when fibers become airborne. Undisturbed asbestos fibers pose a lower threat as long as they remain enclosed or encased.

Once an individual inhales or ingests asbestos, it may stay in the body indefinitely. Researchers have not yet developed any technique for removing inhaled asbestos fibers from the lungs. The fibers may embed into sensitive tissue and cause irritation and scarring over time. This may lead to cancer or other asbestos health effects.

A graphic showing how asbestos causes mesothelioma

How Much Asbestos Exposure Is Dangerous?

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma, may develop from brief exposures.

However, the amount and duration of exposure may impact the risk of asbestos-related diseases. Prolonged and high-volume contact with asbestos may increase the likelihood of developing a related disease like asbestosis.

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Short-Term Asbestos Exposure

Short-term exposure is generally lower risk. But asbestos fibers can accumulate in the body over time, so repeated instances of short-term exposure are dangerous.

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Long-Term Asbestos Exposure

Long-term asbestos exposure is more likely to lead to the development of related diseases. Consistent exposure occurring over years is considered long-term.

Signs and Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure

There are no immediate signs of asbestos exposure itself. Individuals may know they are in the presence of asbestos if they are exposed to crumbly (friable) products produced before the 1980s.

Photo of Woman Coughing

Symptoms of asbestos-related illnesses often take 10 – 50 years to develop. After decades have passed, it can be difficult for people to remember the source of their exposure. Some people may not even realize they were exposed to asbestos at all.

Asbestos Exposure Symptoms

Symptoms of asbestos exposure may vary in severity depending on the type of disease that develops. Patient symptoms will also differ based on disease location. Some of the more common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full early
  • Fluid buildup (effusions)
  • Intense bloating (abdominal distension)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Pain (other forms)
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Weight loss
03. Asbestos Exposure Types

How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?

People are exposed to asbestos when they inhale or ingest airborne asbestos fibers. Asbestos exposure may occur at work, school, home or in the military.

However, exposure is most common on the job. Asbestos workers’ loved ones may also be at risk of secondhand exposure. Other sources of exposure include asbestos-contaminated talc, household products or damaged asbestos construction products in older homes and buildings.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Photo of workers at a construction site, where asbestos exposure was common.Occupational exposure is one of the most common types of asbestos exposure. This type occurs when individuals are exposed to the mineral at work, often in industrial or manufacturing settings.

Workers often exposed to asbestos-containing materials include:

Estimates show more than 27 million U.S. workers in various occupations may have been exposed to harmful asbestos between 1940 and 1979. This time period was the height of asbestos use in the United States. However, asbestos was used long before 1940 and after 1980. Asbestos exposure and associated cancer risks are still concerns today.

Records show many employers were aware of the dangers of exposure but continued to use asbestos because it was inexpensive. A worker’s risk of occupational exposure varies depending on the type of job they had.

Asbestos Companies

Photo of a Brick FactoryHundreds of companies across many industries used asbestos until the 1980s when the U.S. government implemented more asbestos regulations. Companies may have used asbestos in their manufacturing processes, in their buildings or in the products they made. As a result, millions of people have faced asbestos exposure from working for these companies, living near their facilities or using their products.

Notable asbestos companies include:

Asbestos jobsites across various industries continue to put workers and the public at risk of exposure, such as industrial facilities and chemical plants.

Asbestos Products

Photo of Brake RotorAsbestos was commonly used in products from the early 1900s through the 1970s. Today, certain commercial products may still be made with small amounts of asbestos, including gaskets and brake pads. Asbestos products like floor tiles and roofing may also remain in older homes, schools and buildings.

Common asbestos products include:

If asbestos-containing commercial products are intact and not disturbed, they are not immediately dangerous. However, if the products are worn, disturbed or damaged, fibers may become airborne. Anyone who suspects asbestos materials are present should talk to an asbestos abatement professional.

Asbestos in consumer products can also pose a health risk. Use of asbestos in some consumer products, like cosmetics, is often unintentional. This can happen when asbestos-contaminated talc is used in makeup and other products.

Other Types of Asbestos Exposure

People may come into contact with asbestos outside of work as well. This kind of exposure may be harder to pinpoint and guard against, as it is often difficult to prevent.

Secondhand Exposure

Secondhand, or secondary, asbestos exposure occurs when fibers are transported on a person from one place to another. This can indirectly expose family members and other non-asbestos workers to the mineral.

For example, a textile worker who spends all day around asbestos may carry home fibers on their work clothing. From there, children, spouses and other cohabitants may disturb and inhale the dangerous asbestos fibers.

Environmental Exposure

Environmental asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos is disturbed in the ground or water. This can occur when natural deposits are uncovered. It may also happen when abandoned or destroyed asbestos products begin to degrade and settle into the environment. This may happen after a natural disaster or from abandoned buildings.

Some areas of concern for environmental exposure are open mines or abandoned asbestos sites. For example, the Libby, Montana, vermiculite mine is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site. Years of mining in this area exposed the surrounding community to tremolite-actinolite asbestos. Now, cleanup efforts are underway to protect the safety of the residents.

04. Preventing Asbestos Exposure

How to Prevent Asbestos Exposure

Photo of Worker Exposed to Asbestos

One of the best ways to prevent asbestos exposure is to not handle asbestos products. People should not try to remove asbestos on their own. Only licensed asbestos abatement workers should handle and remove the carcinogenic mineral. These professionals should know the federal, state and local laws pertaining to asbestos removal in the area.

Homeowners and residents should assume any house built before 1980 has asbestos-containing materials. Anyone undertaking a DIY, demolition or renovation project should contact an asbestos inspector to determine how to proceed. Many states have strict asbestos removal and disposal regulations.

If asbestos materials are accidentally disturbed, experts recommend these steps:

  1. Wet the materials to prevent asbestos fibers from becoming airborne
  2. Seal off the area with the asbestos materials as thoroughly as possible
  3. Contact an abatement professional to safely remove and dispose of the asbestos

What to Do if You’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos

If you know you have been exposed to asbestos, it is important to tell your general practitioner and maintain frequent checkups. A doctor familiar with your medical history may notice asbestos exposure symptoms, such as coughing, shortness of breath or chest pain.

Many of the early symptoms of asbestos diseases are mild and easily attributable to less serious diseases. Keeping your doctor informed of any changes in your health may contribute to an early diagnosis. Early diagnosis can lead to improved mesothelioma treatment outcomes.

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Have Mesothelioma Symptoms?

Mesothelioma doctors may be able to spot the signs of asbestos diseases before general practitioners.

Find a Doctor
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Exposed to Asbestos and Have a History of Smoking?

Smoking can contribute to an increased risk of developing an asbestos illness after exposure.

How Smoking Impacts Risk
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What Are Your Legal Options After Asbestos Exposure?

Legal options are available to asbestos disease patients.

Find an Asbestos Lawyer
05. Asbestos in the U.S.

Asbestos Exposure in the United States

Individuals living in all 50 states may experience asbestos exposure. This includes environmental exposure from natural asbestos deposits, open mines for other minerals and asbestos products. The mineral is not fully banned in the United States and individuals across the country may still be in danger of exposure.

Asbestos Sites by State

Asbestos exposure can occur anywhere in the country. Some states may have higher exposure risks.

Find Asbestos Exposure Sites Near You

Find Asbestos Exposure Sites Near You

Certain states, such as California, have high quantities of natural asbestos deposits. Other states, such as New York, have high mesothelioma rates due to industries and jobsites with known asbestos use.

Learn more about asbestos dangers in your state by selecting your state in the dropdown menu.

Asbestos and the World Trade Center

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center released tons of asbestos and other contaminants. Those who worked or lived in the area surrounding Ground Zero may have experienced asbestos exposure from the destruction of the towers.

First responders at the World Trade Center on 9/11

According to some sources, the North Tower alone contained 300 – 400 tons of asbestos. One study estimated that up to 2,000 tons of asbestos was used in the total construction of the World Trade Center.

When the towers were destroyed, much of this asbestos was released into the surrounding areas.

06. Common Questions

Common Questions About Asbestos

Does everyone exposed to asbestos get cancer?

No, not everyone exposed to asbestos will get cancer. The risk for asbestos-related diseases increases with exposure length and the presence of other risk factors, including genetics and previous radiation treatments.

How do you prove asbestos exposure?

A mesothelioma doctor can prove asbestos exposure by diagnosing patients with an asbestos-related disease. For mesothelioma, the only way to definitively diagnose the disease is for the doctor to analyze a biopsy sample. For legal action, mesothelioma lawyers can prove and pinpoint asbestos exposure using extensive product databases and knowledge.

Does asbestos stay in your lungs forever?

Currently, there is no method to remove asbestos from the lungs. As far as researchers know, this means the fibers remain in the body after asbestos inhalation. Asbestos fibers that embed in the lungs can lead to irritation and the development of diseases such as pleural mesothelioma.

How do we know that asbestos can make you sick?

Decades of studies have shown the connection between asbestos exposure and illnesses like mesothelioma and lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says “the associations between asbestos exposure, lung cancer and mesothelioma have been well established in numerous epidemiological investigations.”