Exposure to asbestos can cause several health conditions, especially lung diseases. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos through work, talk to your healthcare provider about steps you can take to protect yourself and slow the progress of asbestos-related disease.
Asbestos is a group of six natural mineral fibers. These fibers are known for their strength and fire- and chemical-resistant properties. Because of these qualities, the manufacturing and building industries have used asbestos to:
Asbestos fibers may be white, blue, brown, gray or green. The white fibers, called chrysotile, are the most commonly used in the United States.
Asbestos has been mined and used in North America since the late 1800s. During World War II, manufacturers starting using it more. Asbestos is in thousands of products, including building products such as:
Many household products and substances also contain asbestos, including:
Asbestos fibers are not harmful unless they are released into the air. When they are released, the fibers break down into tiny particles. The particles become airborne, and we inhale them. Then they collect in the lungs, causing scarring and inflammation. Several U.S. health organizations have classified asbestos as a carcinogen, a cancer-causing substance.
Exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of developing:
Since the late 1970s, the United States has passed regulations limiting asbestos use. These regulations:
Many products — especially buildings built before the regulations — contain asbestos. However, overall there has been a significant decline in the use of asbestos in the United States.
Everyone has some level of asbestos exposure. There are low levels of asbestos in the air, water and soil. However, these levels are low enough that they do not make people ill.
People who have worked directly with asbestos have the highest risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Occupations that have a high risk of asbestos exposure include:
Those who were involved in rescue, recovery and cleanup at the site of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City are at higher risk for developing asbestos-related diseases.
Not everyone exposed to asbestos develops an illness. In general, the longer your exposure, the higher your risk. But even if you only had brief exposure to asbestos, you still have a risk of developing a disease.
Factors that affect your risk of developing asbestos-related disease:
According to the National Cancer Institute, millions of Americans have had asbestos exposure since the 1940s.
Asbestos-related conditions result from exposure to tiny asbestos fibers that collect in the lungs. The longer you were exposed to asbestos and the more intense the exposure, the higher your chances of developing a related condition. Working with asbestos-containing materials is the main cause. People who laundered clothing containing asbestos fibers or live in areas with high levels of airborne asbestos are also at risk.
You may have no symptoms until years after exposure. People who develop asbestos-related disease may be symptom-free for as long as 10 to 40 years after exposure. If you have any of these symptoms, see your healthcare provider:
To diagnose asbestos-related disease, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and asbestos exposure. Your provider will then perform a physical exam, including:
Your provider may recommend further testing to see your lungs in more detail:
Your treatment for asbestos-related disease depends on how asbestos has affected your lungs. There is no “one size fits all” treatment. For example, if you have a pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs) the fluid may need to be drained. Other treatments include:
Asbestos fibers are only harmful when they are released into the air. Today, asbestos used in building materials and many other products are bonded into the products. This process keeps them from being released into the air. There is little to no risk of harmful health effects from these products. However, take care not to sand, tear or otherwise damage or crumble the material. These actions can release the fibers into the air.
If you have asbestos materials in your home that are in good condition, it’s best to leave them alone. If you touch or disturb the material, you risk releasing the fibers into the air. Have materials inspected from time to time for signs of damage or deterioration. Intact material doesn’t pose a risk.
If you notice the material crumbling, a professional should come take a sample of the material and analyze it. If the material is asbestos and has damage, you will need to have it removed or repaired.
The goal of repair is to prevent asbestos fibers from being released into the air. Hire an asbestos professional to do the repair or removal. Don’t try to do it yourself. Improper handling of asbestos can create more of a health risk than leaving the material alone.
Because asbestos-related diseases affect the lungs, smoking increases lung cancer risk in people who have been exposed to asbestos. People who have had asbestos exposure should take extra care not to smoke.
Your prognosis and outlook depend on how asbestos affects your lungs. It may take several years for any sign of asbestos-related disease to be detected. Lung or pleural scarring may not affect your overall health — however severe scarring, lung cancer or mesothelioma will. It all depends on the severity of your condition, overall health and other risk factors.
Treatment cannot reverse lung damage from asbestos. Treatment for asbestos-related diseases aims to relieve symptoms, treat complications related to the disease and slow its progress.
It is possible to have “secondhand” asbestos exposure, called “paraoccupational exposure.” When a person works with asbestos materials, they can bring home particles on their shoes, clothing, skin and hair. Some evidence shows that family members of people who are heavily exposed to asbestos have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.
To decrease this risk, most jobs that use asbestos materials make sure that the workers change when they arrive and leave work. Most companies also have showers available for employees to clean particles from hair and skin. Trained employees who wear protective clothing launder the contaminated clothing. These precautions lower the risk of family members developing any diseases. If you are exposed to asbestos at work, talk to your healthcare provider about other precautions you and your family can take.
If you work in an industry with asbestos, ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos through your job, talk to your healthcare provider. Asbestos can cause several health conditions, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer. You may not have symptoms for decades after exposure. Even if you’re feeling fine, talk to a provider so you can take steps to protect yourself and reduce your health risks. If you do have an asbestos-related condition, your healthcare provider will help you get the treatment you need.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/28/2020.
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