Clean Air

The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure


Asbestos is a silica material that has a fibrous appearance, somewhat like thin strands of cotton that are clung together by static electricity. Each strand comprises of smaller fibers that when inhaled can result in scarring of lung tissue, calcification or thickening of lung disease, and lung cancer.

The first asbestos mining operations are believed to have started nearly 4,000 years ago. It isn’t clear how early civilizations used asbestos, but in the 18o0s it was used primarily for fireproofing and electrical insulation.

Because asbestos is inexpensive, its use spread to many homes and businesses. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until decades later that people would begin to recognize the connection between asbestos exposure and health problems.

The Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure

The probability of developing a condition related to asbestos exposure depends on a set of key factors. According to Canadian Centre for Occupational Healthy and Safety, concentrations of asbestos, the length of exposure and frequency factor into individual health risks.

During the first 12 months of asbestos exposure, the potential for developing lung cancer at some point in life increases. When cancer does fully develop, the first symptoms may not appear for more than 30 years, which makes it difficult to pinpoint when exposure occurred.

Even if the individual does not develop cancer, they could develop asbestosis. This happens when the fibers enter the lungs and results in the development of scar-like tissue. This tissue makes it difficult for the lungs to expand and contract, which can lead to a range of symptoms that include coughs, reduced lung function, and skin discoloration resulting from low oxygen in the blood.

Asbestos By The Numbers

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimates that 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos fibers between 1940 and 1979. As of 2004, it is believed that around 1.3 million workers were exposed. While those numbers are still considered high, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets standards for acceptable levels of exposure.

Exposure to asbestos is most common in fields related to construction, repair and maintenance. Some positions as risk include:

  • Automobile mechanics
  • Building Inspectors
  • Carpenters
  • General and specialized construction
  • Electricians
  • Insulators
  • Shipyard or Navy related personnel
  • Plumbers
  • Welders
  • … and more

Although exposure is down, as a result of the time it takes for related diseases to form (10-40 years), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicates that deaths from asbestos exposure from the early and mid-1900s are just now reaching their peak.

Why Is Asbestos Still Used?

Under the 1963 Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency sought to reduce the use of asbestos. Initially, they succeeded in banning the material for use in spray-applied products, fireproofing and for insulation purposes.

At the end of the 1980s, the EPA attempted to create a ban and phase-out rule to prevent the “manufacturing, importation, processing and sale of asbestos-containing products.” But in 1991, the asbestos industry challenged the ban and won because the EPA was unable to demonstrate that alternatives to asbestos were less harmful and that proper handling of the material would be equally as effective as a ban while also costing considerably less than an outright ban.

While a ban and phase out failed, the EPA was able to establish a ban on Asbestos in these products:

  • Corrugated paper
  • Rollboard
  • Commercial paper
  • Specialty paper
  • Flooring felt
  • New uses of asbestos

Additionally, the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act dictates that schools test for the material and inform parents of the result, and develop a plan to control or remove it from the building.

How To Test and Remove Asbestos

Buildings constructed before 1989 could potentially have been built with material that contains asbestos. If asbestos is suspected, contractors that specialize in the material can take samples and submit them for laboratory testing. Alternatively, some home improvement stores offer test kits and ways to send samples for testing.

If asbestos is found, removal of the material is possible but can be costly if discovered in the walls or ceilings. For a less expensive solution, it may be possible to apply a sealant that will help prevent future exposure.

Although America has seen asbestos use decrease, the World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people globally were exposed to asbestos at work. Asbestos mining operations are largest in Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Canada, and Zimbabwe. These and other continue to rely on asbestos for economic reasons, and in some cases may refuse to acknowledge information about the risk of exposure.

For those that have been exposed in their place of work, they may be eligible for one or more programs to assist with expenses. More information is available at

Did you or a family member ever work in a job that led to asbestos exposure? Share your story in the comments below.

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