Asbestos Exposure

Blue-collar workers, military service members, and their families have the highest risk of asbestos exposure. People exposed to asbestos may later develop mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural plaques, and other serious illnesses. Asbestos-related diseases are primarily caused by occupational asbestos exposure.

Written and Fact-Checked by: Laura Wright

Rates of Asbestos Exposure and Disease

The United States once produced millions of products containing asbestos. The mineral was resistant to heat, fire, water, and sound, making it a powerful asset to many industries.

Asbestos could be found in:

  • Car parts
  • Construction materials
  • Homes
  • Makeup
  • Military bases, ships, and vehicles
  • Schools and offices

Over 27 million Americans had direct asbestos exposure in their workplace from 1949-1979, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

While asbestos was once thought of as a miracle material due to its durability and fireproofing properties, it had an alarming drawback: It could cause people to develop serious health problems.

Asbestos causes mesothelioma, an incurable and deadly cancer.

Causes of Mesothelioma Video Thumbnail

Registered Nurse Amy Fair discusses how exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma. View Transcript.

Duration: 1 min 06 sec

What are the causes of mesothelioma?

Many times after being diagnosed with mesothelioma your physician may ask you if you have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is a causative factor for mesothelioma. Some of the imaging studies may show underlying pleural plaques which are indicated that they have been around asbestos and may show underlying asbestosis.

The risk factors for developing mesothelioma are working around asbestos-related products or being indirectly around those products such as secondhand exposures that are seen with wives that launder their loved ones’ clothes and have asbestos dust on them. So direct asbestos exposure, as well as indirect asbestos exposure, can be causative factors for mesothelioma.

If you have symptoms of mesothelioma or any asbestos-related disease, it’s important that you inform your doctor of your asbestos exposure so that appropriate testing can be done.

The risk factors of asbestos were not well-known until millions had already been exposed. This is because the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products knew the health risks but hid the facts to keep making money.

Anyone exposed to asbestos decades ago is now at risk of health problems since it takes 10-50 years for these diseases to develop and cause noticeable symptoms. Those exposed to asbestos materials over long periods of time are more likely to develop asbestos-related diseases.

What Are the Types of Asbestos?

Asbestos is a generic name for two different groups of silicate minerals: serpentine and amphibole.

Detail view of an asbestos chrysotile fiber stone
Detailed view of an asbestos chrysotile fiber stone, originally found in Chrysotile, Arizona.

The vast majority of workers were exposed to serpentine (chrysotile) asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos (also called white asbestos from its natural color) appears as long and wavy strings under a microscope.

Chrysotile asbestos — the only type of asbestos in the serpentine group — accounts for 90% of asbestos used across America. Amphibole asbestos is the other group.

The amphibole asbestos group contains 5 other types of asbestos:

  • Actinolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite
  • Tremolite

Amphibole fibers appear remarkably different than serpentine fibers under a microscope. These asbestos fibers look like shorter and bulkier crystals with sharp needle-like spikes protruding from the mass.

There is no safe form of asbestos despite these differences.

Exposure to any type of asbestos can cause mesothelioma or other diseases.

Victims of asbestos-related diseases may be eligible to receive financial compensation to help them hold accountable the negligent companies responsible for their illnesses.

Types of Asbestos Exposure

There are many different ways that individuals can become exposed to asbestos at work, out in nature, or in their homes.

The main way that people come into contact with asbestos is through inhalation or ingestion.

When asbestos-containing rocks, soil, or manufactured products become disturbed or break apart, they release fibers into the air.

People can then breathe in or swallow these asbestos fibers. The fibers never leave once inside the body.

Military Asbestos Exposure

Military personnel had one of the highest probabilities of asbestos exposure.

Almost every branch of the U.S. military relied on asbestos for constructing ships, aircraft, and buildings from the 1930s to the early 1980s.

Military roles with a high risk of exposure include:

  • Aircraft mechanics
  • Boilermakers
  • Carpenters
  • Construction workers
  • Demolition specialists
  • Enginemen
  • Flooring installers
  • Heating system workers
  • Hull technicians
  • Insulation workers
  • Machinist mates
  • Pipefitters
  • Plumbers
  • Seabees
  • Shipfitters
  • Shipyard workers
  • Vehicle mechanics
  • Welders

The Navy had some of the highest rates of asbestos use out of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

A U.S. navy ship

Shipbuilding was the most prominent example of asbestos use in the Navy. The mineral was used to coat ships’ hulls and pipes.

Navy veterans exposed to asbestos during their time of service can seek financial and health care benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Our team is available to help veterans with mesothelioma build strong VA claims. Download your Free Veterans Compensation Guide today.

Occupational Exposure to Asbestos

​Some industries and occupations were notoriously risky for being exposed to asbestos dust.

Historically, these jobs had the highest asbestos exposure risk:

  • Automotive mechanics because most cars, trucks, and buses were assembled with asbestos-containing products
  • Construction workers as hundreds of products relied on asbestos to make them stronger, lighter, and cheaper
  • Factory workers who handled raw asbestos and produced products
  • Installers who cut, drilled, sanded, and shaped asbestos-containing products on construction sites
  • Maintenance personnel who disturbed asbestos-containing products during repairs and modification
  • Miners who extracted raw asbestos
  • Renovators and demolition specialists who destroyed asbestos-containing materials

Anyone who worked with or around asbestos or asbestos-containing products is at an increased risk of asbestos-related health problems.

Asbestos-Containing Products

Thousands of products were made with asbestos in part because the mineral was cheap and versatile.

These products included:

Some of these products may still contain asbestos today.mFor example, some brakes and clutches that are currently available or in use contain asbestos.

As for consumer items, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found asbestos in Claire’s brand makeup in 2019. Learn more about affected products in our Free Asbestos Guide.

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Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when individuals who do not directly use or work near asbestos-containing products are exposed — similar to secondhand smoke.

Workers and military personnel often came home with asbestos on their clothing, skin, or hair.

When the asbestos was disturbed and released into the air, it created a risk of exposure for those around them at the time.

People who had the greatest risk of secondary exposure were family members of workers who directly handled asbestos products.

Asbestos-laden work clothes were often mixed in with the family laundry, placing everyone in the house at risk. Wives were often exposed to asbestos when they did the laundry.

Asbestos fibers are almost always undetectable since they are virtually invisible and odorless.

Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Researchers have identified several diseases caused by asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is a recognized carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) in humans. Malignant (cancerous) asbestos-related diseases develop when mutated cells grow and divide out of control.

Some asbestos-caused cancers are treatable in the early stages while others are potentially fatal.

In addition to mesothelioma and other cancers, exposure can also lead to non-cancerous asbestos-related diseases.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a common and deadly disease. Asbestos exposure is responsible for about 20% of lung cancer cases.

Most cases are related to smoking but worsen when asbestos fibers irritate otherwise healthy lung tissue.

Surgery can sometimes remove lung cancer tumors before they spread to the rest of the body. Radiation and chemotherapy also work.

Mesothelioma

This is arguably the worst disease caused by asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer.

It occurs when cancerous tumors form in the:

  • Abdominal lining (peritoneum)
  • Heart lining (pericardium)
  • Lung lining (pleura)
  • Testicle lining (tunica vaginalis)

Symptoms can vary depending on the type, but common ones include shortness of breath, chest pain, persistent cough, and weight loss.

Malignant mesothelioma survival rates range from 1-5 years after diagnosis.

Anyone who develops mesothelioma should explore key treatments immediately and learn how to pay for medical expenses.

Learn more about treatments and financial assistance in our Free Mesothelioma Guide.

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Ovarian and Laryngeal Cancers

Asbestos exposure has also been linked to cancer of the ovaries and larynx (voice box).

Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer in women.

Asbestosis

This lung disease — the most common asbestos disease — causes scar tissue to form inside the lungs, making it harder for victims to breathe over time.

Asbestosis is not always fatal but does have a high mortality rate if left untreated.

Pleural Plaques

Plaque formation on pleural (lung) tissue is also common.

Pleural plaques develop after collagen — a protein produced by the body — responds to immune system signals when asbestos fibers attach to pleural tissue.

Collagen calcifies or hardens and forms pleural plaque deposits. Thankfully, pleural plaques are usually harmless to long-term health.

Pleural Effusions

When the lining of the lungs becomes irritated by asbestos fibers, fluid can build up and result in a symptom called pleural effusion.

Pleural effusions are not particularly dangerous, but they can cause shortness of breath, a dry cough, and pain.

Pleural effusions may also be a symptom of cancer. Roughly 50% of people with cancer suffer from pleural effusions, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Pleural effusions can be drained through minimally invasive surgery.

Who Develops Asbestos-Related Diseases?

Medical experts cannot conclusively predict who is more likely to get sick from asbestos exposure. Whether someone will develop an asbestos-related disease after exposure depends on a combination of factors.

These factors may include:

  • Dosage: The amount or quantity of asbestos fibers to which someone was exposed
  • Duration: The length of time a person was exposed
  • Genetics: Some people are genetically predisposed to cancer and other diseases
  • Location: The amount of ventilation in a work area can greatly affect how much asbestos exposure occurs
  • Personal habits: Issues like smoking, when combined with asbestos exposure, may increase the risk of illnesses
  • Pre-existing conditions: Workers with pre-existing medical issues had a higher risk of asbestos-related illnesses

Those who are concerned that their asbestos exposure could lead to health issues should speak with their doctor.

Treatments are often available no matter what type of asbestos-related disease someone may have. Victims of asbestos exposure may also qualify to receive financial compensation to help pay for their treatments.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, you may be able to access compensation from asbestos trust funds. More than $30 billion is available in these trust funds as of today — we’ll help you file a claim if you’re eligible.

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Preventing Asbestos Exposure

Today, the U.S. and governments around the world have taken steps to limit people from being exposed to asbestos.

Asbestos is officially recognized as a danger to humans by these groups:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)

However — despite EPA restrictions — asbestos is not totally banned in the U.S., and some products containing the carcinogenic mineral are still sold today.

Examples of asbestos-containing products not banned by the EPA include:

  • Aftermarket car brakes
  • Brake blocks
  • Diaphragms
  • Drum brake linings
  • Sheet gaskets and other gaskets

Two workers wearing masks and protective suits dispose of hazardous absestos-containing materials

In April 2022, the EPA proposed banning almost all remaining uses of asbestos under a law known as the Toxic Substances Control Act. If the agency is successful, workers and their families would finally have the protection — and peace of mind — that they have always deserved.

However, until all asbestos is outlawed, the only thing that can be done to reduce health risks is to follow best practices for handling asbestos-containing products.

Asbestos Exposure Permissible Level

Authorities now agree that there’s no such thing as a safe exposure to asbestos regardless of dose and duration.

EPA and OSHA set an industry standard for dangerous asbestos air quantity to lower these risks.

The current permissible exposure level (PEL) for all workers is 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc). This rate has steadily decreased from the 1970s and 1980s when the original suspected safe PEL was set at 12.0 f/cc.

Anyone exposed to asbestos levels over the PEL must be equipped with personal protective equipment, including HEPA-rated respirators, and follow other safety procedures.

Asbestos Exposure Safety Standards

Managing asbestos exposure requires a commonsense approach.

Thousands of older American vehicles, buildings, and worksites still contain asbestos. This means asbestos exposure is still a risk today.

Fortunately, asbestos products that have been sealed and left alone are considered safe. Friable (damaged and easily crumbled) asbestos still poses a threat to human health.

People who believe they are at risk of asbestos exposure should reach out to an abatement professional who can assess the possible risks.

Many people who developed a life-threatening disease after workplace asbestos exposure have received compensation from negligent asbestos manufacturers and suppliers.

With help from a mesothelioma lawyer, you may be able to receive court-ordered financial compensation if you or a family member got sick from asbestos exposure.

For more information on seeking justice for asbestos exposure and illness, contact us today.

Asbestos Exposure FAQs

What are the first signs of asbestos exposure?

The first signs of asbestos exposure often include shortness of breath, a dry cough, and chest pain.

In most cases, symptoms do not appear until 20-50 years after the initial exposure.

How much exposure to asbestos can cause damage?

Unfortunately, researchers have determined that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Even a single exposure can lead to the development of an asbestos-related disease.

However, the more asbestos that you are exposed to, the greater your chance of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.

Other factors that play a role in whether a person will get sick from asbestos exposure include the duration and dose of exposure and personal traits such as genetics and smoking history.

Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos-related disease.

What happens if I breathe in asbestos once?

Even a single exposure to asbestos can be dangerous, especially if it involved high levels of asbestos.

However, most asbestos-related diseases are caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. People who worked in jobs that required them to handle asbestos-laden products or served in the military are most likely to be develop mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.

In most cases, a single exposure to asbestos poses a low health risk.

If you are concerned about an asbestos exposure event, your best course of action is to consult with your doctor.

Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 14 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

12 References
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncology. (2019, November 1). Fluid Around the Lungs or Malignant Pleural Effusion. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/physical-emotional-and-social-effects-cancer/managing-physical-side-effects/fluid-around-lungs-or-malignant-pleural-effusion

  2. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Asbestos and Health: Frequently Asked Questions” https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos/docs/Asbestos_Factsheet_508.pdf Accessed November 29, 2022.

  3. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Asbestos Toxicity: Who is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?” (2016, January 29) https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=29&po=7 Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  4. Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety “Asbestos Exposure Fact Sheet” Retrieved from http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/asbestos/whatis.html Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  5. United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos” Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/index.html Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  6. United States Department of Veteran Affairs, “Veterans Asbestos Exposure” (2019, September 27) https://www.va.gov/disability/eligibility/hazardous-materials-exposure/asbestos/ Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  7. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos Exposure” Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  8. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  9. CNN. “Asbestos found in Claire’s cosmetics, FDA says.” Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/05/health/claires-asbestos-fda-cosmetics. Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  10. EPA. “Current Best Practices for Preventing Asbestos Exposure Among Brake and Clutch Repair Workers.” Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/current-best-practices-preventing-asbestos-exposure-among-brake-and-clutch-repair-0#. Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  11. Mayo Clinic. “Asbestosis.” Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asbestosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354637. Accessed on November 29, 2022.

  12. Politico. “EPA moves to ban asbestos after decades of failure.” Retrieved from: https://www.politico.com/news/2022/04/05/epa-moves-ban-asbestos-00022900. Accessed on November 29, 2022.

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