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Health Effects Associated with Asbestos Exposure

lung cancer; health effects of asbestos

What are the health problems associated with asbestos exposure? In this blog post I will discuss the common routes of exposure for asbestos and its health effects related to exposure.

The term asbestos refers to a group of six naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals which often have a length-width ratio of roughly 1:20. These minerals were widely coveted because of their fire-resistance, tensile strength, and durability. Many dubbed asbestos the “miracle mineral” because of its versatile uses in a wide variety of industries. However, its health effects associated with exposure have been documented since antiquity.

The Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, documented in his writings in the 1st century that the workers in the asbestos mines often died faster than the rest of the population from a lung sickness. In the early 1900s, researchers worldwide began correlating workers exposed to asbestos to lung disease related deaths. These discoveries eventually led to the ban of its many uses in 1977 in the United States and the classification of it as a carcinogen.

The most common route for asbestos exposure is from inhalation. Ingestion is another route of exposure that is far less prevalent than inhalation. Skin contact with asbestos has been not known to cause any serious health effects. The most common activity that causes asbestos exposure is disturbing asbestos-containing materials during renovation activities. Breaking or disturbing these materials may release asbestos fibrils in the surrounding air. Once inhaled the asbestos fibers enter the lungs undetected because of its microscopic size and are deposited into the lungs over time. The larger the amount and duration of deposition of fibers into the lungs will increase the likelihood of asbestos related diseases to occur.

Asbestos related diseases do not generally occur directly after exposure. In fact many asbestos related diseases have a long latency period, which is generally 10-50 years after exposure. The three most common asbestos exposure related diseases are mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Mesothelioma is an asbestos-related cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs and abdomen and usually but not always attributed to amphibole asbestos minerals (Amosite & Crocidolite). There is no current cure for mesothelioma.

Individuals exposed to asbestos are far more likely to develop lung cancer than those who aren’t. People who smoke and are exposed to asbestos have an even higher likelihood of developing lung cancer because the lungs are more vulnerable to asbestos fibers. This is known as the synergistic effect in which two factors produce a greater effect than the sum of its components. Asbestos is primary cause of mesothelioma, whereas there are many causes of lung cancer.

Asbestosis is a pulmonary fibrosis of the lungs that results from asbestos fibers scarring lung tissue. People with asbestosis have a higher likelihood of developing mesothelioma or lung cancer.

Currently there is no safe threshold for asbestos exposure. OSHA and the EPA have accepted guidelines for exposure limits, however these should not be interpreted as safe levels. All carcinogens should be kept at the lowest possible concentration. If you plan to disturb or remove materials that may contain asbestos, I recommend you hire a licensed asbestos inspector (such as our company, Indoor Science) to inspect and collect the material before starting renovation activities.

Ian Cull

Ian Cull is a nationally recognized expert in the field of indoor air quality. He is the Chief Science Officer of Indoor Science, a company he started in 2004. He speaks around the world on air quality topics and is a training provider of the Indoor Air Quality Association. Mr. Cull is a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). His degree is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Mr. Cull has developed 50 air quality related courses for the IAQA University and is the author of the book, “Fundamentals of Mold Remediation”. In his words… “Besides being passionate about indoor air quality, I enjoy cycling, music, the Chicago Bulls, and having fun with my three kids.”

11 thoughts on “Health Effects Associated with Asbestos Exposure

    My favorite part about this article was to learn that asbestos-related diseases don’t manifest themselves until about 10-15 years later. My husband and I recently bought a new house and we are looking to tear it down and rebuild parts of it, to make it look more modern and to have more room for parties. We are suspicious that this house was insulated with asbestos, so we are trying to find tips and ideas on how to fix this problem.

    I never knew that diseases related to asbestos have a 10-50 year latency period! My husband and I recently bought a cabin, and we think it may have asbestos problems. We’ll have to find a good asbestos removal company in our area to help take care of it. Thanks for the info!

    Thank you for sharing the information about the diseases and issues that can happen because of asbestos. I had no idea that the issues and diseases from asbestos can start showing up 10-15 years after exposure! I think it would be a good idea for me to get asbestos testing on any potential homes I want to buy in the future.

    I’m glad I read up on the effects of asbestos. I never realized the side effects could be so severe. After reading what asbestos can cause, I will need to look into how it can be safely removed.

    I wasn’t aware that asbestos was highly coveted because of its fire-resistant properties. I think I might have the building tested by a commercial designated substance survey service to avoid getting my workers sick from asbestos. Since the most common form of exposure is through inhalation, I’ll make sure that they don’t work in the area until it’s clear of asbestos so that they’ll be safe.

    I never knew that individuals exposed to asbestos are far more likely to develop lung cancer than those who aren’t. My friend moved into her new home and then discovered there was asbestos in the attic. She’s considering having it removed, so thank you for talking about how asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma as well.

    I never knew that people used to call asbestos “the miracle mineral”. My parents had to get asbestos removed from their old home. Thank you for the information on the health effects of this carcinogen.

    It’s been known for decades that using an insulation material called asbestos poses more health risk than benefits. I always discourage people I know from using this material when they’re building or renovating their homes. And when your old house has asbestos as insulation, never try to remove it without the proper gear. It would be wiser to as professional help than risk your health removing it. Thanks for the great read!

    Thank you, Jordan Thomas, for your insightful recommendations on how to avoid asbestos contamination. I look forward to future articles from you regarding earth science and health!