What are the health hazards of exposure to asbestos?
How might I be exposed to asbestos?
Who is at risk?
How great is the risk for workers?
How can workers protect themselves?
What is the danger that asbestos may be in my home?
How can I identify materials that contain asbestos?
How does smoking affect risk?
Who needs to be examined?
What are the treatments for asbestos-related diseases?
What should people who have been exposed to asbestos do?
Do I have a lawsuit if I am exposed to asbestos, but do not have a disease?
Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of several serious diseases:
Asbestosis—a chronic lung ailment that can produce shortness of breath and permanent lung damage and increase the risk of dangerous lung infections.
Mesothelioma— is a cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen. Mesothelioma has a latency period of 10 to 50 years after the first exposure to asbestos. Therefore, it is possible that people who are now developing mesothelioma were first exposed to asbestos up to 50 years ago.
The most common types of asbestos-related cancers are as follows:
- Pleural mesothelioma
- Peritoneal mesothelioma
- Laryngeal (Throat)
- Pharyngeal (Throat)
- Lung cancer
- Other cancers, such as those of the larynx and of the gastrointestinal tract
You are most likely to be exposed to asbestos by inhaling asbestos fibers suspended in air. These fibers can come from natural outcroppings of asbestos or from the wearing down of man-made products including insulation, ceiling and floor tiles, roof shingles, cement, and automotive brakes and clutches. However, these products do not always contain asbestos. Low levels of asbestos that are not likely to be harmful to your health can be detected in almost any air sample. For example, in rural areas, an average of around 0.03 fibers are usually present in a cubic meter (f/m³) of outdoor air. Higher levels are usually found in cities, where there may be 2-300 f/m³. The fiber count depends on how the fibers are measured. Values in air are reported as phase contrast fibers per cubic meter. A cubic meter is about the amount of air you breathe in 1 hour. The values in water are reported as transmission electron microscope fibers. This method is more sensitive than phase contrast microscopy, so values in air and water are not comparable.
Close to an asbestos mine or factory, levels could reach 2,000 f/m³ or higher. Levels could also be above average near a building which is being torn down or renovated that contains asbestos products, or near a waste site where asbestos is not properly covered up or stored to protect it from wind erosion.
In indoor air, the concentration of asbestos depends on whether asbestos was used for insulation, ceiling or floor tiles, or other purposes, and whether these asbestos-containing materials are in good condition or are deteriorated and easily crumbled. Concentrations measured in homes, schools, and other buildings that contain asbestos range from 0.7 to 6,000 f/m³. People who work with asbestos (for example, miners, insulation workers, automobile brake mechanics) without proper protection are likely to be exposed to much higher levels of asbestos particles in air.
You can also be exposed to asbestos by drinking fibers present in water. Even though asbestos does not dissolve in water, fibers can enter water by being eroded from natural deposits or piles of waste asbestos, from asbestos-containing cement pipes used to carry drinking water, or from filtering through asbestos-containing filters. Most drinking water supplies in the United States have concentrations less than 1 million fibers per liter (MFL). However, in some locations, water samples may contain 10-300 MFL or even higher.
Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have been exposed to asbestos dust. Health hazards from asbestos dust have been recognized in workers exposed in many different trades including shipbuilding, asbestos mining and milling, manufacturing of asbestos textiles, insulation, pipefitting, steamfitting, welding, boilermaking, electrical, plumbing, drywall, demolition, and others. Although it is known that the risk to workers increases with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, studies have found asbestos-related diseases in workers who were exposed to high levels of asbestos fibers for only brief periods; sometimes only weeks or months. Workers who may not have worked directly with asbestos but whose jobs were located near contaminated areas have also be diagnosed with asbestosis, mesothelioma and several other types of cancers associated with asbestos exposure.
Generally, workers who develop asbestos-related diseases show no signs of illness until many years after their first exposure. For example, the time between first exposure to asbestos and the appearance of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma is generally 10 years or more. Symptoms may take as long as 30 to 40 years to develop.
There is also evidence that family members of workers who were exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This risk is thought to arise from exposure to asbestos brought into the home on the shoes, clothing, skin, and hair of exposed workers.
Not all workers exposed to asbestos will develop diseases related to their exposure. The risk of developing asbestos-related diseases varies with the type of industry in which the exposure occurred and with the extent of the exposure. In addition, different types of asbestos fibers may be associated with different health risks. For example, results of several studies suggest that crocidolite and amosite are more likely than chrysotile to cause lung cancer, asbestosis, and, in particular, mesothelioma. Even so, no fiber type can be considered harmless, and proper safety precautions should always be taken by people working with asbestos.
Workers who are concerned about asbestos exposure in the workplace should discuss the situation with other employees, their employee health and safety representative, and their employers. If necessary, OSHA can provide more information or make an inspection. Regional offices of OSHA are listed in the “United States Government” section of a telephone directory’s blue pages (under “Department of Labor”). Regional offices can also be found at www.osha.gov.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is another Federal agency that is concerned with asbestos exposure in the workplace. The Institute conducts asbestos-related research, evaluates work sites for possible health hazards, and makes safety recommendations. In addition, NIOSH distributes publications on the health effects of asbestos exposure and can suggest additional sources of information. More information can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh.
Asbestos is so widely used that the entire population has been exposed to some degree. Up until the 1970s, many types of building products and insulation materials used in homes contained asbestos. The mere presence of asbestos in a home or a building is not hazardous. The danger is that asbestos materials may become damaged over time. Damaged asbestos may release asbestos fibers and become a health hazard.
Damaged Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) is more likely to release fibers than non-damaged ACM. In particular, when dry ACM can be crumbled by hand pressure (a condition known as “friable”), it is more likely to release fibers into the air than when it is “non-friable.” Fluffy, spray-applied asbestos fireproofing materials are generally considered “friable.” Some materials which are considered “non-friable,” such as vinyl-asbestos floor tile, can also release fibers when sanded, sawed or otherwise aggressively disturbed. Materials such as asbestos cement pipe can release asbestos fibers if broken or crushed when buildings are demolished, renovated or repaired. ACM which is in a heavy traffic area, and which is therefore often disturbed, is more likely to release fibers than ACM in a relatively undisturbed area.
The best thing to do with asbestos material in good condition is to leave it alone!
Disturbing it may create a health hazard where none existed before. Read this material before you have any asbestos material inspected, removed, or repaired.
Where Asbestos Hazards May Be Found In The Home
- Some roofing and siding shingles are made of asbestos cement.
- Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation.
- Asbestos may be present in textured paint and in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints. Their use was banned in 1977.
- Artificial ashes and embers sold for use in gas-fired fireplaces may contain asbestos.
- Older products such as stove-top pads may have some asbestos compounds.
- Walls and floors around woodburning stoves may be protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets.
- Asbestos is found in some vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives.
- Hot water and steam pipes in older houses may be coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape.
- Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.
- To learn more about this topic, click on Asbestos in the Home
You can’t tell whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it, unless it is labeled. If in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional. A professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. In fact, if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone. Taking samples yourself is not recommended. If you nevertheless choose to take the samples yourself, take care not to release asbestos fibers into the air or onto yourself. Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) should be left alone. Only material that is damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled. Anyone who samples asbestos-containing materials should have as much information as possible on the handling of asbestos before sampling, and at a minimum, should observe the following procedures:
- Make sure no one else is in the room when sampling is done.
- Wear disposable gloves or wash hands after sampling.
- Shut down any heating or cooling systems to minimize the spread of any released fibers.
- Do not disturb the material any more than is needed to take a small sample.
- Place a plastic sheet on the floor below the area to be sampled.
- Wet the material using a fine mist of water containing a few drops of detergent before taking the sample. The water/detergent mist will reduce the release of asbestos fibers.
- Carefully cut a piece from the entire depth of the material using, for example, a small knife, corer, or other sharp object. Place the small piece into a clean container (for example, a 35 mm film canister, small glass or plastic vial, or high quality resealable plastic bag).
- Tightly seal the container after the sample is in it.
- Carefully dispose of the plastic sheet. Use a damp paper towel to clean up any material on the outside of the container or around the area sampled. Dispose of asbestos materials according to state and local procedures.
- Label the container with an identification number and clearly state when and where the sample was taken.
Patch the sampled area with the smallest possible piece of duct tape to prevent fiber release. Send the sample to an EPA-approved laboratory for analysis. Alternatively, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) publishes a list of these laboratories. To see a list of laboratories using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and laboraties using polarized light microscopy (PLM). Your state or local health department may also be able to help. To see a list of products that contain asbestos, click on Asbestos Containing Materials (ACM).
Many studies have shown that the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is particularly hazardous. Cigarette smokers, on the average, are 10 times as likely to develop lung cancer as are nonsmokers. For nonsmokers who work with asbestos, the risk is about five times greater than for those in the general population. By contrast, smokers who also are heavily exposed to asbestos are as much as 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than are unexposed individuals who do not smoke. Smoking does not appear to increase the risk of mesothelioma, however.
There is evidence that quitting smoking will reduce the risk of lung cancer among asbestos-exposed workers, perhaps by as much as half or more after at least 5 years without smoking. People who were exposed to asbestos on the job at any time during their life or who suspect they may have been exposed should not smoke.
Individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been exposed) to asbestos dust on the job or at home via a family contact should inform their physician of their exposure history and any symptoms. A thorough physical examination, including a chest x-ray and lung function tests, may be recommended. Interpretation of the chest x-ray may require the help of a specialist who is experienced in reading x-rays for asbestos-related diseases. Other tests also may be necessary. As noted earlier, the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after exposure. If any of the following symptoms develop, a physical examination should be scheduled without delay:
- Shortness of breath
- A cough or a change in cough pattern
- Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs
- Pain in the chest or abdomen
- Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness
- Significant weight loss.
The key to successful treatment of asbestos-related diseases lies in early detection. The health problems caused by asbestosis are due mainly to lung infections, like pneumonia, that attack weakened lungs. Early medical attention and prompt, aggressive treatment offer the best chance of success in controlling such infections. Depending on the situation, doctors may give a vaccine against influenza or pneumococcal pneumonia as a protective measure.
Treatment of cancer is tailored to the individual patient and may include surgery, anticancer drugs, radiation, or combinations of these therapies. Information about cancer treatment is available from the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov.
It is important for exposed individuals to:
- Stop smoking
- Get regular health checkups
- Get prompt medical attention for any respiratory illness
Before you are entitled to damages in an asbestos lawsuit, you must show an injury that has been diagnosed as an asbestos-related injury by a medical doctor. In other words, exposure to asbestos alone is not sufficient grounds to file an asbestos lawsuit. If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, you should contact because certain deadlines (called statutes of limitations) may apply.