Asbestos exposure refers to the inhalation or ingestion of airborne asbestos fibers. There are multiple activities which can release asbestos fibers in the air and thereby, exposure can happen in numerous settings – including at home. As fibers are microscopic, people may be unaware that they were exposed to asbestos in certain cases, especially since this mineral occurs naturally in plenty of geographic regions across the world. However, asbestos is a known human carcinogen. While exposure does not result in immediate symptoms, it can lead to the development of serious diseases over the years.
Our bodies are not designed to eliminate asbestos. Thus, after you breathe in or swallow toxic fibers, they will lodge in your lung tissue or inside your digestive system forever. The rough texture of asbestos fibers, as well as their needle-like shape, makes their natural elimination impossible, although some may be coughed up occasionally. Moreover, fibers can also travel through the body, which – depending on the organ they migrate to – may result in kidney cancer, colorectal cancer, esophageal cancer or bladder cancer. These asbestos fibers can gradually produce severe inflammation and tissue scarring, which might subsequently give way to a disease. However, due to their long latency period, asbestos-related diseases only occur after 15 to 50 years of first exposure.More about Asbestos Minerals
Types of Asbestos Exposure
As previously noted, asbestos exposure can occur under multiple circumstances. Depending on the setting in which it takes place, asbestos exposure is of four types:
This form of exposure concerns individuals who were in contact with asbestos in the workplace between 1935 and 1978, when the use of this carcinogenic mineral was extremely widespread in the U.S. Although the harmful effects of exposure were well-known by most companies, executives did all in their power to keep this information secret and continued to employ asbestos, thoughtlessly jeopardizing workers’ health. Some of the industries in which asbestos use was very common are construction, shipbuilding, boilermaking, chemical, and automotive. Employees would be exposed to asbestos either by working in rooms with high levels of airborne fibers – which were also poorly ventilated, most of the time – or by handling asbestos-containing products.
Occupational exposure is accountable for the vast majority of asbestos-related conditions. Approximately 20% of the individuals with a history of workplace asbestos exposure will develop a disease. In nearly half of the cases, this disease is going to be mesothelioma, the most aggressive form of cancer asbestos can cause. People who were in contact with asbestos on the job are most likely to become ill because the concentration of toxic fibers in the air they would regularly breathe was extremely high, as well as because their exposure would generally extend over several years.More about Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Deposits of asbestos can be found worldwide, some of the largest in the U.S. occurring in the following states:
- New Jersey
It is not uncommon for people to come in contact with asbestos by accidentally disturbing mineral deposits. There are many human activities which can result in naturally occurring asbestos becoming airborne, such as bicycle riding or gardening. Similarly, natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes can also disturb asbestos deposits. This type of asbestos exposure usually entails a low health risk.
Nevertheless, environmental exposure also refers to instances when people breathe in asbestos fibers released by nearby human activities such as demolition, mining or construction operations. In this case, asbestos exposure is significantly more dangerous, as the amount of carcinogenic fibers involved is higher and the duration of exposure is greater as well. Perhaps the most eloquent example in this respect is the tragic fate of a tremendous number of Libby residents who had been subjected to asbestos exposure from a vermiculite mine for over five decades. So far, approximately 400 Libby residents died of asbestos-related diseases, while over 3,000 are currently struggling with the devastating health effects of exposure.
Surprisingly, asbestos exposure can also happen at home. As building materials were commonly manufactured with asbestos, construction companies would accordingly employ asbestos-containing products for their projects. Nowadays, millions of old buildings across the U.S. have asbestos-containing materials in their structure, which may pose a considerable threat to the health of inhabitants over time. With aging, asbestos products deteriorate and some will also become brittle. Asbestos fibers can escape from building materials which are in poor condition with the slightest disturbance, as well as from friable products like insulation or pipe lagging. Some old household appliances such as toasters or hair dryers may contain asbestos as well.
Domestic asbestos exposure is most likely to occur in houses built before the mid 1980s. If you inhabit such a building, we suggest you check it for asbestos-containing products. You can find a list of the most common building materials in which asbestos might be present on the homepage. It is important to know that non-friable, undamaged asbestos materials do not imply a high risk of exposure, so removing this type of products will not be necessary as long as they are in good condition. You should avoid disturbing asbestos-containing materials in any way and if they are severely damaged, we strongly advise you to contact a professional asbestos abatement company which will safely dispose of the hazard.
Secondary asbestos exposure takes place when one inhales or ingests toxic fibers without being in direct contact with the source of exposure. As the harmful effects of exposure were not officially recognized until 1973, people who handled asbestos-containing products on the job were not required by employers to wear protective equipment or to change their clothes at the end of their shift. Consequently, not only would they inhale astounding amounts of carcinogenic fibers, but they would also carry asbestos dust home, involuntarily putting their family members’ health at risk.
The rough texture of asbestos fibers allows them to become embedded in fabrics very easily. Shockingly, it was quite common for workers to return home covered in visible asbestos dust. In addition to clothes, fibers would also linger in their hair and on their skin. If the person would not change their work clothes upon arriving home, asbestos would spread throughout the house as well (for instance, fibers could stick to armchairs or carpets). Children would be exposed to asbestos by greeting their father or grandfather, since the vast majority of industrial workers were men, whereas women would inhale toxic fibers while shaking out their husbands’ work clothes before washing them.
Is Asbestos Exposure Always Dangerous?
The consensus, as expressed by multiple U.S. federal agencies and worldwide health organizations, is that there is no safe asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral which can cause terrible diseases, regardless of the source of exposure. However, there are several factors which may increase the risk of developing a disease, as follows:
- the duration of exposure – studies suggest that the longer one was in contact with asbestos, the more likely they are to be diagnosed with a related illness
- the amount of asbestos fibers in the body – it is also believed that if a person is exposed to a high concentration of airborne asbestos, their risk of developing a disease increases, as they will inhale a larger amount of toxic fibers
- the type of asbestos – there are conflicting opinions in this respect, as while some believe chrysotile asbestos is the most dangerous, others argue that the minerals in the amphibole group are more hazardous due to their needle-like shape
- smoking – smokers with a history of asbestos exposure are between 50 and 90 times more susceptible to developing lung cancer than non-smokers who were exposed to asbestos
- preexistent pulmonary disease – asbestos-related diseases are more likely to occur in individuals who suffer from a pulmonary condition, since their lungs are already weakened
- a germline mutation in BAP1 – it was found that this genetic mutation increases one’s chances of developing mesothelioma significantly, which partially explains why only a small portion of people exposed to asbestos are diagnosed with this form of cancer
Considering the toxicity of asbestos, you should always be cautious in this respect – even if there is only a slight possibility of exposure. Although people with a history of heavy and prolonged exposure are at highest risk, there have been situations in which individuals who had been in contact with asbestos on only one occasion developed mesothelioma. Since occupational exposure is quite rare nowadays and strict workplace regulations for industries which still employ asbestos are currently effective, we advise you to be vigilant in regard to asbestos in your home, as well as when purchasing new building materials.
If you suspect asbestos might be present in one or more products in your house, we strongly encourage you to collect a sample by following the instructions in our guide and send it to us for a free-of-charge, professional analysis. We will promptly let you know whether asbestos lurks in your home and also offer you further advice. If your house has damaged or friable asbestos materials, please contact a certified asbestos removal company in your area as soon as possible, as exposure will inevitably occur in this case. You can find a list of the highest-rated asbestos abatement companies at the end of our free guide.