Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that is present in soil and rocks. Exposure to asbestos may lead to lung diseases and other health conditions.
In the past, many manufacturing companies used asbestos in construction materials due to its fibrous strength. Many countries have banned the use of asbestos due to its health risks.
This article discusses asbestos in more detail, including the risks of exposure, who is most at risk, and whether the substance is banned in the United States. It also explains when people may need to contact a doctor and answers common questions about asbestos.
Asbestos is a fibrous material naturally present underground in rock and soil.
Asbestos mining took place in the U.S. for decades but ceased in 2002. However, the U.S. still imports some asbestos.
- chrysotile (white asbestos)
- crocidolite (blue asbestos)
Because asbestos is strong and heat resistant, manufacturers used to use the material in a wide variety of products, such as:
- building materials, including roofing shingles, floor and ceiling tiles, and insulation
- cement products
- heat resistant fabrics
- automobile brakes and transmission parts
- hot water and steam pipe coatings
- oil and coal furnaces
At certain times, such as during building work and home maintenance, people may accidentally disturb materials that contain asbestos. This may release tiny asbestos fibers and particles into the air. If a person inhales these fibers and particles, they may experience various health problems.
When someone breathes in asbestos fibers, they may become trapped in the lungs and remain there for many years. Over time, the fibers can cause inflammation and lung scarring, which may affect a person’s breathing and lead to other health problems.
Doctors associate asbestos exposure with several health conditions, including:
- Mesotheliomas: These are cancers of the membranes that line the abdomen and chest. According to the
National Cancer Institute, asbestos exposure causes most mesotheliomas.
- Asbestosis: This is a condition that occurs as a result of exposure to asbestos over a long time. In people with asbestosis, scar tissue develops in the lungs, which makes breathing difficult.
- Other types of cancer: According to the
World Health Organization, exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of developing cancer in the following areas:
Individuals who work in certain industries may have an increased risk of asbestos-related health conditions because of their increased exposure level.
Currently, in the U.S., people who work in construction have the most significant level of exposure to asbestos.
Other occupations that may involve asbestos exposure include:
- custodial workers
- maintenance workers
- insulation workers
- asbestos abatement workers, who remove asbestos from homes and buildings
Adverse health effects due to asbestos exposure may take several years to develop. This means a person may not know they have an asbestos-related health issue until many years after exposure.
The U.S. has phased out the use of products containing asbestos since 1989. At that time, the government enacted a partial ban on the importing, manufacturing, processing, and distribution of certain asbestos-containing products.
Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has continued to phase out and regulate asbestos products. However, there is no complete ban on asbestos in the U.S.
In 2022, the EPA proposed a complete ban. That proposal needs to go through additional phases before becoming law.
Asbestos may still be present in the following:
- roofing and siding shingles
- car clutches and brakes
- attic and wall insulation that contains vermiculite
- textured paint
- oil and coal furnaces
According to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, many countries have banned asbestos. For instance, countries including Australia, Denmark, and Finland have enacted legislation to prohibit the use or mining asbestos.
It is best for people to contact a doctor if they have any symptoms of an asbestos-related condition. This is the case even if the person does not know if they have experienced asbestos exposure.
Symptoms related to asbestos-related conditions
Below are answers to some of the most common questions about asbestos.
How do people experience asbestos exposure?
People may unintentionally disturb asbestos-containing materials and release asbestos fibers into the air in various ways. For example, this can occur when remodeling, repairing, or demolishing buildings.
Once the asbestos fibers are airborne, someone may inhale them into their lungs. This is the most common form of asbestos exposure. People may also swallow asbestos if any fibers are present in food or drinks.
Does all asbestos cause cancer?
Can the lungs clear asbestos?
The lungs remove the majority of asbestos fibers from the body through coughing. However, the lungs may not clear it entirely. Some fibers may remain and instead become trapped deeper into the lungs.
Asbestos is a natural fibrous material that is present underground in rocks and soil. Since asbestos is strong and fire-resistant, manufacturers used it for many years.
However, many countries have banned asbestos use because it may cause diseases, such as various cancers and asbestosis. The EPA has also enacted a partial ban on the use of asbestos.
Construction workers, miners, and maintenance workers are most at risk of asbestos exposure. It is best for people to speak with a doctor if they develop symptoms of an asbestos-related condition, even if they do not think they have experienced asbestos exposure.