What is asbestos?

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:

  • Strengthen cement and plastics.
  • Provide insulation.
  • Fireproof buildings, textiles and military vehicles.
  • Absorb sound.

Asbestos fibers may be white, blue, brown, gray or green. The white fibers, called chrysotile, are the most commonly used in the United States.

What products contain asbestos?

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:

  • Asbestos and cement shingles, siding and roofing.
  • Casings for electrical wires.
  • Millboard.
  • Patching and joint compound.
  • Pipe, duct and furnace insulation.
  • Floor tile and adhesives.
  • Soundproofing material.

Many household products and substances also contain asbestos, including:

  • Artificial ashes and embers used in gas-fired fireplaces.
  • Automobile brake pads and linings, clutch facings and gaskets.
  • Fireproof gloves, stovetop pads, table pads and fire-resistant fabrics (including blankets and curtains).
  • Some plastics, paints, coatings and adhesives.
  • Vermiculite-containing attic insulation and consumer garden products.

How does asbestos affect my health?

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:

  • Ban asbestos use in situations where it could be released into the air (like in gas fireplaces).
  • Require regular inspections to make sure asbestos materials are intact and undamaged.
  • Establish guidelines to ensure asbestos particles aren’t released during use.

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.

Who is at risk of asbestos exposure?

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:

  • Shipbuilding and naval service.
  • Railway construction.
  • Asbestos mining and milling.
  • Construction and building trades.
  • Manufacture of chemicals, flooring, plastics or rubber.
  • Auto industry (specifically brake repair).
  • Firefighting.
  • Fabric milling.
  • Building demolition.

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:

  • Duration: How long you were exposed to the asbestos.
  • Intensity: How much asbestos you were exposed to.
  • Type of industry: Lower risk if asbestos is bonded into a product (such as walls or tiles); higher risk if asbestos is released into the air, such as during sawing or drilling.
  • Personal risk factors: Smoking or pre-existing lung disease.
  • Genetic mutations: Gene change that makes it more likely you’ll develop a disease.

According to the National Cancer Institute, millions of Americans have had asbestos exposure since the 1940s.

  • Around 3,000 Americans receive a mesothelioma diagnosis every year. About 90% of mesothelioma cases are due to asbestos exposure.
  • Of all the conditions caused by asbestos, asbestos-related lung cancer causes the most deaths, followed by mesothelioma.

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:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Development of a cough or a change in cough patterns.
  • Blood in the fluid (sputum) coughed up from the lungs.
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen.
  • Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness.
  • Significant weight loss.
  • Neck or face swelling.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.

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