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Before we start off this article, it is good to first know what asbestos really is. So, what is asbestos? Asbestos is a group of minerals occurring naturally as fiber bundles. These fibers are found in rocks and soils in several parts of the world. They are mainly made of oxygen and silicon, but they also contain other elements.

Types of Asbestos

There are two types of asbestos. They include:

Chrysotile Asbestos

It is also called white asbestos and is the most common type of asbestos used in industrial applications. The fibers of this asbestos wrap themselves in a spiral. This is why this kind of asbestos can also be called curly or serpentine asbestos.

Amphibole Asbestos

Its fibers are needle-like and straight. Its types include: blue asbestos (crocidolite), brown asbestos (amosite), actinolite, anthophylite, and tremolite.

Fibers from asbestos are quite useful as they are resistant to heat, very tough, and do not conduct electricity. Due to this, asbestos has been a common insulating material since the ancient times. Asbestos can be used to insulate homes, schools, factories, and ships. It can also be used to make automobile clutch parts and brakes, ceilings, roofing shingles, cement, floor tiles, and many other products.

In the early years of the 20th century, a lot of evidence showed that breathing asbestos led to scarring of the lungs. At that time, exposure to asbestos in the workplace was not controlled. Starting in England in the 1920s and the 1930s, measures were taken to protect people that worked with asbestos by installing exhaust and ventilation systems. Nevertheless, in the large shipbuilding process during the 2nd World War, many workers were exposed to large amounts of asbestos.

In the second half of the 20th century, the health effects of asbestos were realized and the right steps were taken to reduce exposure. Such measures included: establishing exposure laws and standards to ban the use of asbestos in construction. This led to a dramatic decrease of asbestos use in Canada and the United States, and invention of alternative insulating materials. Despite this, asbestos is still been used in some products. In addition, it is possible to get exposed to asbestos in old houses, buildings, and other settings. Despite been banned in several countries, asbestos is still been used in some countries.

How Can You Get Exposed to Asbestos

You can be exposed to asbestos through some of the following ways:


Most asbestos exposures happen through inhaling. This can happen when processing and mining asbestos. It can also take place when installing asbestos insulation, or when making asbestos-containing products. Moreover, asbestos exposure can happen when an older building is renovated, demolished, or begins to break down. Through any of these conditions, asbestos fibers can create tiny dust particles that can float in the air.


Asbestos exposure can also happen through swallowing. This can take place after consumption of contaminated liquids or drinks. It can also happen when individuals cough up inhaled asbestos, then swallow the saliva.

Many people get exposed to very minimal levels of asbestos in outdoor air due to erosion of asbestos-containing rocks. This risk is higher in areas with high levels of asbestos. In some regions, asbestos can be seen in water supply and also in the air. Asbestos can get into water through various sources like soil or rock erosion, breakdown of roofing materials with asbestos, or corrosion of cement pipes containing asbestos.

An In-depth Look at Causes of Asbestos Exposure

The following are major causes of asbestos exposure.

Working in Asbestos Industries

When asbestos use was still common, many people that worked in asbestos industries like insulation and shipbuilding remember working in heavy clouds of asbestos dust, on a daily basis. Therefore, people that still work in asbestos industries are very likely to be exposed to it, if the necessary measures are not taken to prevent this. Moreover, the family members of these workers also are at risk of exposure. This is because, asbestos fibers can be carried home on the workers’ clothing.

Decomposition of Older Buildings

Another major concern of asbestos exposure comes from older buildings. If building materials with asbestos start to decompose over time, fibers from asbestos can be found in indoor air and become a health threat. There is usually no risk if asbestos is bonded into firm products like tiles and walls. As long as the material containing asbestos is not disturbed or damage, asbestos fibers don’t get released into the air. Maintenance workers tasked with sweeping and disposing materials in these buildings are likely to come into contact with asbestos. They are at a great risk of asbestos exposure, more so than anyone else in these buildings. To minimize exposure, these maintenance workers should be trained on the use of protective equipment to reduce exposure.

Exposure in the Workplace

Asbestos exposure can also happen in the workplace. This mostly happens for those workers operating in construction sites and general industries that use products containing asbestos. In fact, according to the United States of America, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), over one million Americans operating in these environments are at a great risk of asbestos exposure. Also, in the year 2005, the World Health Organization said that around 125 million people in the world were exposed to asbestos at work, besides the known connection to cancer and other lung complications.

Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

To figure out whether asbestos causes cancer, two main studies were carried out; lab studies and studies done on people.

Studies in People

A study was conducted in distinct groups of people. The research compared the cancer rate in a group exposed to asbestos to the cancer rate in a group not exposed to the substance. The results showed that the cancer rates in people exposed to asbestos were higher compared to those not exposed to it.

Lab Studies

In studies conducted in the lab, animals were exposed to asbestos to see if it causes tumors or other health conditions. Researchers also exposed normal cells in a lab dish to asbestos to identify whether it causes any changes as seen in cancer cells. These studies also showed a connection between asbestos and cancer.

Exposure to Asbestos and Cancer Risk

As earlier said, asbestos was found to be closely linked to cancer risk. Here are the types of cancer that asbestos could cause.

Lung Cancer

Inhalation of asbestos fibers has been known to increase the risk of developing lung cancer in numerous studies asbestos-exposed workers. The rise of this risk is evident in all kinds of asbestos. So, there is no safe asbestos in regards to lung cancer risk. In short, the more an individual is exposed to asbestos, the higher the risk of lung cancer. Many lung cancer cases in asbestos workers happen with the first 15 years of exposure. For smokers exposed to asbestos, their cancer risk is much higher compared to separate exposures to these two substances.


This is a rare cancer that usually affects the thin linings of the chest organs and the abdomen. This medical condition is closely connected to asbestos exposure. All kinds of asbestos are linked to mesothelioma. However, amphibole asbestos is seen to cause this cancer at little levels of exposure compared to Chrysotile asbestos. Most mesothelioma cases occur after exposure to asbestos at work. Moreover, people living close to asbestos mines and factories are also at a risk of mesothelioma. In addition, family members of those that work with asbestos are also very likely to develop this medical condition. Despite the fact that an increase in the amount of asbestos exposure causes a rise in the risk of mesothelioma, there are no safe levels of asbestos exposure in regards to mesothelioma risk.

Mesothelioma takes time to develop. In fact, it takes around 30 years after exposure to diagnose it. Unfortunately mesothelioma risk does not drop after exposure as it appears to be a lifelong condition.

Mesothelioma risk is not high among smokers as compared to lung cancer.

Other Types of Cancer Related to Asbestos

Asbestos exposure is also linked to cancers of the larynx and ovaries. Research also shows that it could also be connected to cancers of the colon, stomach, pharynx (throat), and rectum. Despite this, the scientific proof to show this connection is very low.

What Experts Say about Asbestos and Cancer Risk

Various national and international organizations study asbestos to deduce its cancer-causing ability. The American Cancer Society evaluates these organizations to evaluate the risks based on evidence from human, animal, and laboratory experiments. Based on various studies, several agencies have evaluated that asbestos has the potential to cause cancer. Such organizations include:

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

Its main aim is to evaluate causes of cancer. This agency classifies asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans”. This is because this substance has the ability to cause lung, ovaries, and larynx cancers and also mesothelioma.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP)

It is formed from different US government agencies like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. This agency also classified asbestos as a human carcinogen.

The US Environmental Protection Agency

This agency maintains information and records relating human health effects from exposure to certain substances. This agency also classifies asbestos as a human carcinogen.


Other Health Problems Related to Asbestos Exposure

Apart from cancer, asbestos has the potential of causing other health problems. This part of the article will look at some of these health issues. A lung disease, asbestosis, is the most common health condition associated with asbestos apart from cancer. When an individual inhales asbestos for a long time, some of its fibers lodge in the lungs. Asbestos fibers also cause irritation leading to fibrosis/scarring in the lungs. This can make it for the affected person to breathe. The major symptoms of asbestosis include: chronic coughs, and shortness of breath.

Asbestosis occurs after around 10 to 20 years of first exposure to asbestos. While most people might not experience serious symptoms, others may be faced by critical breathing problems. Unfortunately, there is no proven treatment for asbestosis.

On reaching the outer lining of the lungs, asbestos can lead to pleural effusions, pleural plaques, and pleural thickening. All these complications make it extremely hard to breathe.

How Can You Avoid Asbestos Exposure?

If there is any possibility that you might be exposed to asbestos in any way, then you should consider using protective equipment, safety procedures, and the right work practices for working with asbestos. If there is any risk of exposure at your workplace, you should discuss this issue with your employer or health and safety representative. If there is need, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) can offer more information on how inspections can be done.

If you reside in an old home, you might be at risk of asbestos exposure. This is because this house might still contain asbestos-containing materials or insulation. An expert can inspect your home to determine any availability of asbestos. If there are any traces of asbestos found, then these components have to be eliminated. You should hire a professional contractor to do this job. They will help minimize the risk of more exposure. If you do not have the expertise, never try to remove asbestos by yourself.


Asbestos can be defined as a group of minerals naturally occurring as fiber bundles. These fibers can be found in soils and fibers in various parts of the world. Asbestos exposure mostly takes place in workplaces that involve the use of asbestos. It also takes place in older buildings insulated with asbestos. Exposure to this substance has the potential of causing various cancers like lung cancer and mesothelioma. Due to these effects, asbestos exposure has to be reduced significantly. The best way to do this is to take the right precautions at workplaces involving asbestos use. Those residing in older buildings should consider getting their house tested for asbestos.

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