Asbestos Exposure: What It Is, Symptoms, Health Effects & Treatment

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Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Asbestos exposure in the workplace can deliver deadly health consequences.

It can cause injury or disease, adding to the risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). If your job involves construction, insulation installation, roofing or similar tasks, you may be at risk.

Here, experts break down asbestos exposure, what it entails, its signs and symptoms, its impact on health, available treatments and ways to reduce exposure at work.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos, as explained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a mineral fiber naturally occurring in rocks and the soil. Its remarkable strength and heat resistance have led to its extensive use in various construction materials, serving as insulation and a fire retardant.

You can also find asbestos in a wide array of manufactured goods, including roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, cement products, automotive parts (clutches, brakes and transmissions), heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, gaskets and coatings.

Asbestos can also lurk in unexpected places, such as:

  • Attic and wall insulation containing vermiculite
  • Vinyl floor tiles and adhesives
  • Roofing and cladding shingles
  • Textured paint and wall/ceiling patching compounds
  • Walls and flooring adjacent to wood-burning stoves, protected by asbestos paper, millboard or cement sheets
  • Hot water and steam pipes insulated with asbestos materials or covered by asbestos blankets or tape
  • Oil and coal furnaces with asbestos-insulated door gaskets
  • Heat-resistant fabrics used in various applications
  • Automobile clutches and brakes

Why is asbestos bad for your health?

The U.S. National Cancer Institute explains that asbestos exposure can happen at work, in communities or at home when products containing asbestos are disturbed, releasing tiny fibers into the air. When inhaled, these fibers can become lodged in the lungs. Over time, this accumulation leads to scarring and inflammation, impacting breathing and causing severe health issues.

Multiple organizations classify asbestos as a human carcinogen, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It's linked to mesothelioma, lung, larynx and ovarian cancers.

Asbestos exposure may also elevate the risk of asbestosis, causing lung problems and related disorders like pleural plaques and thickening, potentially increasing the risk of lung cancer.

Asbestos exposure symptoms

As per the American Lung Association, the effects of prolonged asbestos exposure often manifest 10 to 40 years after the initial contact.

The most prevalent symptoms of asbestos exposure include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Chest pain or feelings of tightness
  • Weight loss due to reduced appetite
  • A dry, crackling sound during breathing
  • Clubbing, marked by the fingers and toes appearing broader and more rounded than usual

Recognizing these symptoms is essential for early detection and timely medical intervention in cases of asbestos exposure.

How long after asbestos exposure do you experience symptoms?

“Asbestos exposure can take a long time before we see the development of cancer like malignant pleural mesothelioma. Despite the widespread ban on the use of asbestos products since the 70s, since there’s a lag of between 15 and 50 years, with an average of 32, before the development of cancer, unfortunately the risk can remain dormant for a long time in people,” said Dr. John Maurice, director of thoracic oncology and chair of the cancer committee at at Providence St. Joseph Hospital of Orange, Calif.

Whether you've had direct contact with asbestos-containing materials, encountered it at a construction or industrial site, or even been near someone with asbestos exposure, informing your healthcare provider is crucial.

How much asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma?

There isn't a specific threshold of asbestos exposure that causes mesothelioma, but all forms of asbestos have been linked to it.

“While the mutagenic effects of asbestos in causing mesothelioma is well established, it is more controversial whether a threshold exists in the amount of asbestos inhaled before cancer can be produced," Maurice said.

“Certainly, a large exposure event, such as the collapse of the Twin Towers and the sudden release of thousands of tons of asbestos into the air, could be seen as enough to produce a spike in mesothelioma cases over the next decade," he said. "But whether this equals the same exposure that might be gained over a long period of time is unknown."

Moreover, family members of workers and individuals residing near asbestos facilities or mines face an increased risk. While the risk rises with greater asbestos exposure, there's no identified safe level of exposure when it comes to mesothelioma risk, as noted by the American Cancer Society.

Asbestos exposure treatment

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no treatment to reverse the effects of asbestos. Treatment primarily aims to slow disease progression, ease symptoms and prevent complications. Regular follow-up care, including chest X-rays, CT scans and lung function tests, is crucial. Swiftly addressing respiratory infections can also help ward off complications.

Therapeutically, advanced asbestosis may require supplemental oxygen. Participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation program can be beneficial, providing education and exercises for improved breathing, physical activity and overall health.

In severe cases, a lung transplant may be considered as a treatment option.

How to reduce exposure to asbestos

Preventing asbestos exposure is critical to your health. Until proper assessment and control measures are in place, it's crucial to avoid disturbing potential sources of asbestos.

Here are practical steps to safeguard your health, as outlined in the Asbestos: Worker and Employer Guide to Hazards and Recommended Controls.

  • Never smoke, eat or drink in areas where asbestos exposure is possible
  • Refrain from dry sweeping, shoveling or any dry clean-up of asbestos-containing dust and debris
  • Keep materials damp when cutting, breaking or working with them to prevent the release of asbestos fibers
  • Wear protective outer clothing that can be cleaned or discarded
  • When working with asbestos-containing materials, use a government-approved respirator to safeguard against inhaling fibers
  • After exposure, wash exposed body parts thoroughly with soap and water
  • Prevent carrying asbestos fibers home where family members could inhale them; practice care and cleanliness

Following these precautions is essential to minimize asbestos-related risks.


Dr. John Maurice, director, thoracic oncology and chair, cancer committee, Providence St. Joseph Hospital, Orange, Calif.

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): Asbestos

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Learn About Asbestos

U.S. National Cancer Institute: Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk

American Lung Association: Asbestosis Symptoms and Diagnosis

American Cancer Society: Asbestos and Cancer Risk

Mayo Clinic: Asbestosis

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