Asbestos Exposure 101: What You Need to Know

When it comes to asbestos, knowledge is power. But there is a surprising amount of misinformation out there. Think of this article as your “Asbestos 101.” It covers the basics of what asbestos is, where it can be found, how to protect yourself from it and, most importantly, what to do if you have been exposed.

So What is Asbestos, Exactly?

Asbestos is the commercial name for a set of naturally occurring mineral fibers that form in rock and soil. There are six different types of fibers, all of which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classify as asbestos, and all of which are known to be carcinogenic and may cause cancer.

The six types of fibers are divided into two classes:

  • Serpentine asbestos fibers are named for their curly shape. Chrysotile asbestos, the most common form of asbestos in industrial use, falls into this category.
  • Amphibole asbestos fibers are straight and often described as looking like needles. There are many types of amphibole fibers. The American Cancer Society states that some types of these fibers—most notably, crocidolite—are considered more likely than others to cause cancer. Medical evidence points to the tendency of these particular fibers to lodge deep in the lungs as the probable cause. It is important to note, however, that all forms of asbestos fibers, not just crocidolite, are considered dangerous.

When products made with asbestos become damaged, asbestos fibers can become airborne. If inhaled, those fibers can lodge in the lungs and eventually lead to scarring, inflammation, and life-threatening illness. As defined by the American Cancer Society, the most serious asbestos-related diseases are:

  • Mesothelioma: A rare but aggressive cancer that forms in the thin membrane that lines the organs of the chest or abdomen. This particular form of cancer has an unusually long latency period. People who have been exposed to asbestos may not experience mesothelioma symptoms for decades after exposure.
  • Lung cancer: This can be a result of exposure to asbestos, with the risk increasing with the amount and length of exposure. The lung cancer risk is increased yet again in patients who have been exposed to asbestos and also smoke.
  • Asbestosis: A non-cancerous lung disease that results from scar tissue that builds up on the lung tissue over time. When the tiny asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can lodge in the lungs and cause irritation that leads to scarring. Asbestosis is a progressive disease that prevents oxygen from sufficiently nourishing the blood, and can cause long-term coughing, difficulty breathing and is potentially fatal.

How Was Asbestos Previously Used?

For centuries, asbestos was considered a miracle substance, known for both the strength and heat resistance of its fibers. There is evidence that asbestos was used to strengthen pottery and reinforce log homes dating back as early as 3,000 B.C., and possibly before.

With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution and the growth in manufacturing, the use of asbestos became more common; it was ramped up even more with the post-World War II building boom. Asbestos was used in more than 3,000 manufactured products, most commonly in commercial and residential building materials such as insulation and sheetrock, vinyl flooring and roofing, as well as in other manufactured products including automobile brakes and clutches and transmission parts, gaskets, heat-resistant fabrics and coatings.

Although the harmful effects of asbestos exposure were becoming widely known as early as 1898, commercial use of asbestos not only continued but actually increased through the 1970s. By this time, documented studies of the health risks of asbestos meant the problem could no longer be ignored. But even though many countries, including the U.S., began imposing formal controls and regulations regarding asbestos in the early 1970s, there are manufacturers and employers who continued to defy the rules, putting workers at risk.

This practice has not gone unnoticed. Many companies tried to file bankruptcy in order to protect their profits and to discourage employees – victims of asbestos exposure – from filing lawsuits. However, the courts ordered that these companies put money aside for those who had been harmed by asbestos and for those who may become sick in the future. Today, it is estimated that more than $30 billion has been set aside in court-ordered trusts for victims of asbestos exposure.

How is Asbestos Used Today?

Given all that we know about the health risks of asbestos exposure, one would expect it to be banned everywhere. Surprisingly, while it is banned in more than 40 countries, including France, Germany, Australia, Japan, and Greece, it is not banned in the U.S.

Complicating matters further, is that asbestos is banned in some products, such as ridged paper and artificial fireplace embers, but is not banned in others, such as roof coatings and vinyl floor tile. And just when the EPA, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, issued a policy in 1989 that banned the vast majority of asbestos-containing products, the ruling was reversed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals two years later. While the Court acknowledged, “asbestos is a potential carcinogen at all levels of exposure,” the ruling stated the EPA failed to demonstrate that a total asbestos ban posed the “least burdensome alternative.” As a result, asbestos continues to be a common additive in the products mentioned above, as well as in a wide variety of other automobile and building products ranging from disc brakes to cement shingles.

Places Where Asbestos is Likely To Be: Home, School, Offices, Military Installations (Including Ships, Shipyards, and Bases), And Public Buildings

The natural strength and fire-resistant properties of asbestos certainly made it popular as a building material, and it was used in hundreds of construction products. Schools, offices, and public buildings were often constructed with asbestos wallboard, asbestos-vinyl flooring, asbestos roofing materials, and asbestos insulation, to name just a few of the uses. It was also routinely used in the construction of military ships and military bases. In 1922 the Navy even went so far as to specify that asbestos be used in all of its new submarines.

Many commercial asbestos-containing products were also manufactured for home construction. While the EPA states that there is minimal risk of exposure from asbestos-containing products that are in good condition (without any tears, cracks, cuts or areas of deterioration), it is still important for people to know where asbestos may still exist.

Ways To Protect Yourself From Asbestos At Work

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began to establish regulations in 1971 to deal with asbestos exposure in construction work, shipyards, and general manufacturing. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has similar rules in place to ensure the safety of mine workers. OSHA dictates that employers must follow specific procedures whenever workers may be exposed to asbestos. These procedures include hazard awareness training and the use of personal air quality measuring devices designed to monitor each worker’s level of exposure. Anyone concerned about careless safety practices in a workplace should discuss his or her concerns with the employee health and safety representative, as well as with the employer. If those conversations do not prove satisfactory, OSHA recommends contacting the agency directly and asking for an on-site inspection.

Ways To Protect Yourself From Asbestos Exposure At Home

OSHA regulations do not cover potential asbestos exposure at home. If you suspect there may be asbestos in your residence, it is up to you to contact certified asbestos abatement professionals to inspect your property. They can evaluate the situation and let you know which of these three options you should pursue:

  1. Leave it Alone. The EPA advises homeowners not to panic if they suspect there is asbestos in their home. Asbestos-containing materials that aren’t damaged or disturbed are not likely to pose a health risk. The EPA advises that it is best simply to leave alone any asbestos-containing material that is in good condition, while continuing to monitor it for any decay that may occur over time to ensure fibers do not become airborne.
  2. Repair It. If it is determined that asbestos in the home is damaged and potentially releasing harmful fibers, one option is to repair it, either by sealing or covering the asbestos material. Either approach encloses and contains the asbestos so the fibers cannot be released into the air.
  3. Remove It. If renovation or any type of construction work is likely to damage the asbestos-containing products, asbestos professionals will likely recommend those products be removed.

The repair or removal of asbestos-containing products must be done by a certified asbestos professional. Attempting to do the work yourself puts your health, as well as the health of all the occupants of the home, at grave risk.

I’m Afraid I May Have Been Exposed. Now What?

If you suspect you’ve been exposed to asbestos fibers, whether on the job, while serving in the military, or in your home, tell your doctor. According to the American Cancer Society, most cases of asbestos-related disease can take at least 15 years before symptoms develop, and mesothelioma symptoms can take 30 years or longer between the initial exposure and a confirmed diagnosis.

While we know that there is a strong connection between the amount and length of exposure to asbestos and increased risk for developing an asbestos-related disease, the National Cancer Institute states that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.While symptoms will be different for each patient, common warning signs of asbestos-related diseases include the following:

  1. A mass in the abdomen
  2. Abdominal swelling
  3. Anemia
  4. Ascites (build up of fluid in the abdomen)
  5. Bowel obstruction
  6. Chest pain
  7. Chills and fever
  8. Decreased appetite, weight loss
  9. Fatigue
  10. Hoarseness
  11. Lower back pain
  12. Persistent cough
  13. Pleural effusion (fluid surrounding the lungs)
  14. Shortness of breath
  15. Wheezing

Approximately 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed, on average, each year in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of these cases may have been preventable. Despite strict EPA and OSHA regulations, we read regularly about cases of companies failing to follow safety procedures and putting their workers and the public at risk,

If you or a loved one has been exposed to asbestos, please see a health-care provider—even if you are not experiencing symptoms. If you are diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma, you may be entitled to compensation and should contact an attorney experienced in asbestos litigation.