Asbestos Exposure Risks

Although the use of asbestos is heavily regulated in the United States, it is still not banned entirely. The greatest risk of exposure to asbestos is its presence in older buildings and products, especially those created before the 1980s. Asbestos is most dangerous when it is disturbed and breathed into the lungs.

The Link Between Asbestos and Cancer

Asbestos has been listed by a number of agencies as a known carcinogen, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a World Health Organization department).

The most common cancers associated with asbestos are mesothelioma – which affects the linings of the lungs (pleura), heart (pericardium), and abdomen (peritoneum) – and lung cancer. However, other cancers have been linked to asbestos, including:

  • Gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers
  • Throat, laryngeal, and esophageal cancers
  • Certain abdominal organ cancers, such as kidney and gallbladder cancers

Asbestos has also been found in talc, leading some to believe that it may be linked with ovarian cancer. This has prompted thousands of women to file talcum powder lawsuits against companies like Johnson & Johnson for not adequately warning of the connection between talc and cancer. So far, juries have overwhelmingly sided with plaintiffs, ordering over $724 million in talc settlements.

Scientific evidence for a connection between asbestos and cancer was established in the 1960s, although people had suspected such a relationship existed as far back as Ancient Greece.

How Asbestos Causes Cancer

Asbestos is a “friable” material, meaning it is easily broken down into small particles that can become airborne. These particles are easy to be breathed in or ingested, where they become lodged in the lungs, mouth, esophagus, or abdomen. From there, the small, hook-shaped fibers can easily become lodged into nearby tissues.

Embedded asbestos fibers typically cause irritation and inflammation, which can lead to slow, incremental mutations in the DNA of nearby cells. Over time, these changes can lead to the formation of cancerous tumors, a process that can take decades before it is detected. However, once discovered, most individuals are given only a few months to live.

Avoiding Cancer Caused by Asbestos

The best way to prevent cancer caused by asbestos is to avoid the substance altogether. If you find something that you suspect contains asbestos, do not disturb it.

If doing work on a home or other building that contains asbestos (such as nearly all buildings built before the 1980s), you will likely need to hire a certified asbestos removal expert. Most states have strict requirements about the removal and disposal of asbestos-containing materials. Doing it improperly could lead to heavy fines and other enforcement actions – as well as put your family at risk of exposure.

Other Asbestos Exposure Concerns

While cancer is the primary concern, exposure to asbestos can lead to a variety of other medical concerns as well.

Asbestosis: This is an incurable scarring and fibrosis of the lungs and lung linings, causing the lungs to loose elasticity. Although it may not be fatal in itself, asbestosis worsens over time, making it more and more difficult for the person to breathe. Individuals with asbestosis often need oxygen tanks and pain medications to control symptoms.

Pleural plaque: Over time, asbestos can cause collagen deposits known as plaques, which can calcify and harden. While many pleural plaques may remain symptomless, they can lead to inflammation or cause fluid to build up, a condition known as pleural effusion. Pleural plaques can also be a precursor to or indicator of more severe issues, such as mesothelioma or asbestosis.

Asbestos warts: Most asbestos problems are caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers. However, fibers can also become lodged in the skin, causing inflammation and leading to a dermatological condition known as asbestos warts (granulomatous dermatitis).

What Products Contain Asbestos?

Asbestos has been in use for thousands of years, with evidence of its use going back as far as Ancient Greece, where it was mixed into clay pots and bakeware to withstand the heat of cooking fires. In modern times, it has been used for both domestic and industrial purposes, and before regulations initially put into place in the 1970s, it could be found in everything from insulation to fake snow used on Christmas trees.

Here is a relatively small list of the types of products in which asbestos has been used.

Common Products That Contain Asbestos
Consumer ProductsConstruction Materials
  • Aprons
  • Artificial fireplaces
  • Automobile brakes
  • Baby powder
  • Cigarette filters
  • Crock pots
  • Fake snow
  • Hair dryers
  • Ironing board covers
  • Oven mitts
  • Popcorn poppers
  • Tablecloths
  • Stove mats
  • Curtains
  • Adhesives
  • Cements
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Caulk
  • Flooring
  • Insulation
  • Mortar
  • Paneling
  • Pipe coverings
  • Sealer
  • Sheetrock
  • Stucco
  • Wallpaper
  • Welding Rods

Asbestos Removal Guidelines

If you discover asbestos or an asbestos-containing product in your home, here are some steps you can take to avoid coming into contact with it.

Do Not Disturb: While asbestos is never completely safe, as long as it is unbroken, it is unlikely to do any harm. If you have asbestos insulation in your attics, or in other out-of-the-way places such as the basement, a crawlspace, or behind the walls, the best course of action is to simply leave it alone.

Call a Professional: In many places, asbestos removal and disposal requires a certified professional. It is also a good idea to have a professional take care of asbestos issues even if it is not legally required, to make sure that it is done safely and properly.

Protect Yourself: If the asbestos becomes broken or disturbed, take the appropriate precautions. Cover our mouth, nose, and eyes with mask and goggles or a respirator specifically designed to protect against asbestos. (Note that not all masks will prevent tiny asbestos fibers from getting through.) Also, use disposable rubber gloves to handle the asbestos.

Protect Others: An important part of asbestos cleanup is making sure that the dust doesn’t spread elsewhere. It can easily travel on clothing, boots, gloves, and equipment. When working with asbestos, wear a pair of disposable coveralls and remove them before leaving your work area.

Clean Up Safely: As much as possible, remove asbestos-containing materials without breaking or destroying it, to reduce its chance of spreading. Double-bag materials to be disposed of, and clean equipment and nearby areas with damp clothes to be disposed of as well. When done cleaning, double-bag disposable coveralls, gloves, and other contaminated clothing or protective gear with the items to be disposed.

Dispose Properly: Asbestos materials cannot simply be set out with the regular trash. It must be transported to a waste site that can handle the materials safely. Contact your local or state environmental agency to learn where to dispose of asbestos materials.