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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. Learn more about the connection between asbestos exposure and serious health issues.

Fact-Checked and Updated by: Jenna Tozzi, RN

Last updated:

Asbestos Exposure: Overview & Risk

Asbestos exposure occurs when individuals inhale or ingest tiny asbestos fibers. Historically, asbestos was commonly used in materials such as cement, insulation, fireproofing, and automotive brake shoes and clutch pads.

Health Effects of Asbestos

  • Trapped Fibers: When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can become trapped in the lungs, leading to scarring and inflammation.
  • Carcinogen: Asbestos is classified as a known human carcinogen.
  • Diseases: Exposure is linked to several conditions like mesothelioma, lung cancer, larynx cancer, ovary cancer, asbestosis, and other pleural disorders.

Who’s at Risk?

Nearly everyone has some level of asbestos exposure due to its presence in air, water, and soil.

However, the risk is particularly high for:

  • Individuals in shipbuilding, asbestos mining, construction, and insulation.
  • Occupations like automobile mechanics, firefighters, and demolition workers.
  • People involved in the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center recovery efforts.
  • Family members of workers who were heavily exposed to asbestos.
  • Residents living near asbestos mines.

Factors Affecting Potential Risk

The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease can be influenced by:

  • The dose and duration of asbestos exposure.
  • The specific type and source of asbestos fibers involved.
  • Individual risk factors, including personal habits like smoking or having a pre-existing lung disease.
  • Genetic factors, such as certain predisposing mutations.

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. Over long periods, those exposed to asbestos materials 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 asbestos can cause mesothelioma or other diseases.

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

Types of Asbestos Exposure

There are many different ways that individuals can become exposed to asbestos at work, out in nature, or 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 partly because the mineral was cheap and versatile.

These products included:

Some of these products may still contain asbestos today. For 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 with the greatest secondary exposure risk were family members of workers who directly handled asbestos products.

Asbestos-laden work clothes were often mixed in with the family laundry, putting everyone at risk. Children may have been exposed while hugging or being near the parent with asbestos fibers on their clothes, and spouses 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 early, while others are potentially fatal.

In addition to mesothelioma and other cancers, exposure can 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.


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, but many people live much longer than that.

Anyone who develops mesothelioma should find a trusted mesothelioma doctor to help them explore key treatments.

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.


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 by themselves, but when fluid builds, it can take up space in the chest or lungs and 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 worldwide 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 carcinogenic mineral products are still imported and used 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 (TSCA). In March 2023, the agency released additional data for public comment, which may influence the final rule. If the agency is successful, workers and their families would finally have the protection — and peace of mind — that they have always deserved.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that litigation will keep the EPA from successfully ending asbestos’s reign of terror. The greatest path to ban asbestos is a bill called the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now (ARBAN) Act. ARBAN would completely end asbestos imports on day 1, and the likelihood of being reversed is extremely low. ARBAN’s progress in the United States Congress has been led by members of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) and their co-founder, Linda Reinstein.

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 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 threatens human health.

People who believe they are at risk of asbestos exposure should contact 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.

Usually, symptoms do not appear until 20-50 years after the initial exposure.

What happens if you are exposed to asbestos?

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 you are exposed to, the greater your chance of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases or cancers.

Other factors that affect 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.

How long do you have to be exposed to asbestos to be affected?

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

However, most asbestos-related diseases are caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. People who worked jobs requiring them to handle asbestos-laden products or served in the military are most likely to 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 action is to consult your doctor.

Jenna TozziWritten by:

Director of Patient Advocacy

Jenna Tozzi, RN, is the Director of Patient Advocacy at Mesothelioma Hope. With more than 15 years of experience as an adult and pediatric oncology nurse navigator, Jenna provides exceptional guidance and support to mesothelioma patients and their loved ones. Jenna has been featured in Oncology Nursing News and is a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators & the American Nurses Association.

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  1. American Society of Clinical Oncology. (2019, November 1). Fluid Around the Lungs or Malignant Pleural Effusion. Retrieved May 1, 2024, from
  2. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Asbestos and Health: Frequently Asked Questions” Accessed May 1, 2024.
  3. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Asbestos Toxicity: Who is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?” (2016, January 29) Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  4. Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety “Asbestos Exposure Fact Sheet” Retrieved from Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  5. United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos” Retrieved from Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  6. United States Department of Veteran Affairs, “Veterans Asbestos Exposure” (2019, September 27) Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  7. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos Exposure” Retrieved from Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  8. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  9. CNN. “Asbestos found in Claire’s cosmetics, FDA says.” Retrieved from: Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  10. EPA. “Current Best Practices for Preventing Asbestos Exposure Among Brake and Clutch Repair Workers.” Retrieved from: Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  11. Mayo Clinic. “Asbestosis.” Retrieved from: Accessed on May 1, 2024.
  12. Politico. “EPA moves to ban asbestos after decades of failure.” Retrieved from: Accessed on May 1, 2024.
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