Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure is one of America’s highest occupational health hazards. Millions of American workers experienced exposure to toxic asbestos levels which spanned several decades.

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Rates of Asbestos Exposure and Disease

From the 1930s until the early 1980s, the nation consumed millions of tons of asbestos-containing materials in almost every facet of infrastructure.

Government regulations gradually placed severe limits on asbestos production at the end of the 20th century. However, many workers are still at risk of asbestos exposure today.

Asbestos Exposure in the U.S.

Over 27 million Americans had direct asbestos exposure in their workplace.

People who worked with asbestos have the highest risk of health problems, while others experienced secondary exposure by handling workers’ contaminated clothes, equipment and even riding in vehicles loaded with asbestos dust.

Rates of asbestos-related diseases increase for people who had continuous, long-term exposure to large amounts of asbestos.

The longer someone is exposed to asbestos materials, and the greater the volume of fiber intake, the higher the probability of developing an asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos Exposure Permissible Level

Regardless of dose and duration, all authorities now agree there’s no such thing as a safe exposure to asbestos.

Though it is no longer used frequently, some older buildings, vehicles, and worksites may still contain asbestos materials.

All that can be done to reduce worker health risk from asbestos today is to follow regulatory standards and suggested best practices for handling asbestos-containing products.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), set an industry standard for dangerous asbestos air quantity.

Industry Standard Asbestos Exposure Level

The current permissible exposure level (PEL) for all workers is 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc).

This equation is expressed as 0.1 f/cc. It’s steadily decreased over the 1970s and 1980s when the original suspected safe PEL was set at 12.0 f/cc. Any airborne asbestos exposure above the PEL is prohibited unless workers are trained in asbestos abatement techniques.

Asbestos Exposure Safety Standards

Anyone exposed to asbestos levels over the PEL must be equipped with personal protective equipment including HEPA-rated respirators and approved safety clothing.

Were You Exposed to Asbestos?

Thousands came into contact with asbestos on a regular basis. Get a free legal case review to find out if you may have been exposed.

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Managing asbestos exposure needs a common sense approach. Asbestos products that have been long installed, sealed and left alone are considered safe.

Millions of American homes contain asbestos materials in the flooring, drywall, paint, roofing, and insulation. Thousands of schools, hospitals, and offices do too.

Highest Risk Groups for Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos becomes dangerous when it is handled or disturbed and fibers are released into the air.

Historically, these were groups with the highest exposure risk:

  • Installers who cut, drilled, sanded and shaped ACM on construction sites
  • Maintenance personnel who disturbed ACM during repairs and modification
  • Manufacturing workers who handled raw asbestos and produced products
  • Open pit and underground miners who extracted raw asbestos
  • People who experienced secondhand asbestos exposure
  • Renovators and demolition specialists who destroyed asbestos materials

Navy Veterans

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

Topping the list was the U.S. Navy, where asbestos was extensively used in every ship manufactured from the 1920s until the 1980s. World War II was the peak period for shipbuilding asbestos consumption.

Asbestos lined every ship from end-to-end for fireproofing and insulation.

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Construction Workers

Construction workers are also high on the risk list. Hundreds of construction products contained asbestos to make them stronger, lighter and less expensive.

Construction workers commonly suffered asbestos exposure from these products:

  • Asbestos-containing cement in mortar and foundation concrete mixes
  • Roofing shingles, fibrous-cement siding and insulation products
  • Drywall or sheetrock, joint compound, tape and paint
  • Floor and ceiling tiles as well as cabinet linings
  • Fireplace bricks, furnaces, boilers, and ductwork

Automotive Mechanics

Automotive and heavy machinery mechanics were no exception to lethal asbestos exposure.

Most cars, trucks, buses and even bulldozers were assembled with asbestos-containing products and parts. These products affected assembly line workers and field maintainers.

This mechanical industry uses asbestos in:

  • Brake pads and shoes
  • Transmission clutch discs and plates
  • Fire and soundproofing
  • Gaskets, sealants, and valves
  • Belts and hoses

What Are the Types of Asbestos?

Asbestos is a general or generic name for two different groups of silicate minerals. The vast majority of workers were exposed to serpentine fibers.

Chrysotile asbestos fibers account for 90% of asbestos used across America.

Chrysotile (the only occupants of the serpentine group) is also called white asbestos from its natural color. Microscopically, chrysotile appears as long and wavy strings or serpent-shaped.

Amphibole asbestos fibers comprise the second class.

This group has five subclass members:

  • Crocidolite
  • Amosite
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite
  • Anthophyllite

Under a microscope, amphibole fibers appear remarkably different than chrysotile. Amphobile particles look like shorter and bulkier crystals with sharp, needle-like spikes protruding from the mass.

Being so sharp, amphibole asbestos is far more dangerous than chrysotile fiber.

Because chrysotile fibers are smoother and more flexible, they’re prone to passing through without attaching to lungs or airways.

Amphibole fibers are like tiny mines that stick to the lung lining and dig right in. Crocidolite asbestos fibers are the worst in the amphibole group for causing health damage.

That being said, there is no safe form of asbestos. Exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Who Develops Asbestos-Related Diseases?

Although millions of Americans were exposed to asbestos, not everyone developed an asbestos-caused disease.

Medical experts cannot conclusively predict who is more susceptible to developing an asbestos-related disease. Whether some 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
  • Source: Where the asbestos fibers came from
  • Location: The amount of ventilation in a work area
  • Individual: Issues like smoking may increase the risk of health issues
  • Genetics: Some people are genetically predisposed to disease development
  • Pre-existing: Workers with pre-existing medical issues had a higher risk

Asbestos is a recognized cancer-causing substance (a carcinogen) in humans.

It’s officially identified as a danger to humans by world authorities like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), as well as domestic organizations like the EPA, OSHA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

However, asbestos is not totally banned, and many products containing it are still sold in the U.S. today.

Examples of asbestos-containing products NOT BANNED according to the EPA include:

  • Brake blocks
  • Cement corrugated sheet
  • Cement flat sheet
  • Cement pipe
  • Cement shingle
  • Clothing
  • Clutch facings
  • Disk brake pads
  • Drum brake linings
  • Friction materials
  • Gaskets
  • Millboard
  • Non-roofing coatings
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Roof coatings
  • Roofing felt
  • Transmission components
  • Vinyl floor tile

Diseases caused by asbestos exposure have long latency periods of 20-50 years. Because of this, many people who suffered asbestos exposure decades ago are only now starting to display symptoms of asbestos-related diseases.

Medical science can’t explain this latency length. It remains inconclusive why some asbestos diseases are benign (non-cancerous) while some turn into aggressive, malignant tumors.

Types of Disease Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Researchers have identified several diseases caused by asbestos exposure, ranging from the manageable and benign to aggressive, life-threatening cancers.

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Malignant asbestos-related diseases are cancerous conditions, whereby mutated cells grow and divide out of control. Some asbestos-caused cancers are treatable in the early stages while others are potentially fatal.

Cancers caused by asbestos exposure include:

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 combined with asbestos fibers in the lungs.

Surgery can successfully remove lung cancer tumors before they spread into the rest of the body. Radiation and chemotherapy also work.

Mesothelioma

This is the worst disease caused by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive condition caused by malignant tumors in the lung lining (pleura). Mesothelioma survival rates range from 1 to 5 years after diagnosis.

Mesothelioma also affects the abdomen (peritoneal), heart (pericardial) and rarely the testicles (tunica vaginalis).

Ovarian, Laryngeal, and Kidney Cancers

Asbestos exposure doesn’t commonly cause these malignant diseases, but there are some well-documented cases. Ovarian cancer is the most deadly form of women’s cancer, while larynx and kidney cancers affect both men and women.

In addition to mesothelioma and other cancers, asbestos exposure can lead to benign (non-cancerous) diseases.

Examples of benign asbestos diseases include:

Asbestosis

This is the most common form of asbestos-triggered disease. It involves scar tissue forming over the entire lung interior surface. Asbestosis is not always fatal but does have a high mortality rate if not treated.

Pleural Plaques

Plaques forming on lung or pleural tissue is also common. The issue happens when the body’s natural protein, collagen, responds to immune system signals when asbestos fibers attach to pleural tissue.

Collagen calcifies or hardens and forms plaque deposits, which are harmless to long-term health.

Pleural Effusion

Asbestos exposure affects the lungs’ inner and outer pleural lining. When the pleura becomes irritated by asbestos fibers, it causes an effusion or fluid buildup between the layers.

Pleural effusion is not a disease, but rather a term meaning fluid build-up. It’s not particularly dangerous unless it forms a mass.

Pleural effusions can be drained off through minimally-invasive surgery

Treating Asbestos-Related Diseases

Symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment range depending on the type of disease the person has developed. Most of these diseases are life-threatening, but a few can be effectively managed with medical care.

Treatments are available no matter what type of asbestos-related disease you may have.

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.

Many court precedents exist where claimants successfully sued companies that knowingly placed innocent workers at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.

With help from a mesothelioma lawyer, those with asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma can receive court-ordered awards.

Monetary awards include compensation for personal injury, lost income, and medical expense coverage. Families can apply on behalf of ill members or file lawsuits in wrongful death cases.

For more information on seeking justice for asbestos exposure and illness, contact our Justice Support Team. Call (888) 360-4215 or fill out our contact form today.

Author:Stephanie Kidd
Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd is the Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network and works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful, and helpful.

Last modified: July 11, 2019

View 4 Sources
  1. United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos” Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/index.html Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  2. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos Exposure” Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  4. Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety “Asbestos Exposure Fact Sheet” Retrieved from http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/asbestos/whatis.html Accessed on 16 December, 2017