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, or other illnesses. Asbestos-related diseases are primarily caused by occupational exposure.

Written and Fact-Checked by: Mesothelioma Hope Team

Rates of Asbestos Exposure and Disease

The United States once produced millions of asbestos products. This mineral was virtually impervious to heat, fire, water, and sound, making it a powerful asset to thousands of industries.

Asbestos could be found in:

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

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

While asbestos was once thought of as a miracle due to its durability and other positive 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 health effects 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 20-50 years for these diseases to develop and cause noticeable symptoms. Those constantly 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.

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 the other 5 types:

  • 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 that led to their illness.

Types of Asbestos Exposure

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

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

When asbestos-containing rocks, soil, or manufactured products become disturbed or break apart, it releases 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.

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 build strong VA claims.

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Occupational Exposure to Asbestos

​Some industries and occupations were notoriously risky for exposing workers to asbestos dust.

Historically, these jobs had the highest exposure risk:

  • Automotive mechanics since 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
  • Installers who cut, drilled, sanded and shaped asbestos-containing products on construction sites
  • Maintenance personnel who disturbed asbestos-containing products during repairs and modification
  • Manufacturing workers who handled raw asbestos and produced products
  • Miners who extracted raw asbestos
  • Renovators and demolition specialists who destroyed asbestos-containing materials

Anyone who worked directly with asbestos or asbestos-containing products at these jobs is at an increased risk of dangerous health problems.

Asbestos-Containing Products

Thousands of asbestos products were made in part because the mineral was so versatile.

These products included:

Some of these products may still contain asbestos today.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found traces of asbestos in Johnson & Johnson® baby powder in 2019.

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.

Those who had the greatest risk of secondary exposure were the families of workers who handled asbestos firsthand.

Asbestos fibers often were dispersed from a worker’s clothing while their wife did the laundry.

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

This is what causes the greatest risk of secondary exposure to those who do not work directly with the mineral.

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 diseases.

Lung Cancer

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

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

Surgery can sometimes remove lung cancer tumors before they spread into 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 to 5 years after diagnosis.

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

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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 the most deadly form of cancer among women, while larynx cancer affect both men and women.


This is the most common asbestos disease. This lung disease involves scar tissue forming inside of the lungs, making it harder for victims to breathe over time.

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

Pleural Plaques

Plaque formation on lung or pleural tissue is also common.

Pleural plaque develops 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 plaque is usually harmless to long-term health.

Pleural Effusion

When the lining of the lungs become irritated by asbestos fibers, fluid can build up called a 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 worker was exposed
  • 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
  • Genetics: Some people are genetically predisposed to develop cancer or other diseases
    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 treatment.

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Preventing Asbestos Exposure

In the present day, the U.S. and worldwide governments have taken steps to limit more people from being exposed to asbestos.

Asbestos is officially recognized as a danger to humans by authorities like the:

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

However — despite EPA restrictions — asbestos is not totally banned in the U.S. and some products containing it 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

All that can be done to reduce health risks today is to follow best practices for handling asbestos-containing products until the use of asbestos is outlawed.

Asbestos Exposure Permissible Level

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

The EPA and OSHA set an industry standard for dangerous asbestos air quantity to mitigate 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 over 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 needs a common-sense 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 can pose a threat to human health.

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

Compensation for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Many people who developed a life-threatening disease after workplace asbestos exposure 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.

Mesothelioma Hope was founded by a team of passionate health advocates to educate people about this aggressive form of cancer. Mesothelioma affects thousands of people each year. Our team works tirelessly to give hope to those impacted by mesothelioma. Learn more about operating principles and our Editorial Guidelines.

8 References
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncology. (2019, November 1). Fluid Around the Lungs or Malignant Pleural Effusion. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from

  2. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Asbestos and Health: Frequently Asked Questions” Accessed April 17, 2020

  3. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Asbestos Toxicity: Who is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?” (2016, January 29) Accessed on April 17, 2020

  4. Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety “Asbestos Exposure Fact Sheet” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  5. United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  6. United States Department of Veteran Affairs, “Veterans Asbestos Exposure” (2019, September 27) Accessed on April 17, 2020

  7. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos Exposure” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  8. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from Accessed on 16 December, 2017

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