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What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur naturally in some rocks and soil. It comes in long fibers that are strong and heat-resistant.

Asbestos has been used in insulation, fireproofing, and other building materials. It has also been used in heat-resistant coverings, fabrics, and gloves, and friction products such as automobile brakes.

Because of health concerns, all new uses of asbestos in the United States were banned in 1989.

See also: Brownfield Construction Factories Mines Cancer Asthma and other Lung Diseases

Where is Asbestos found?

  • Consumer products
    • Prior to the early 1970’s- old building materials (old pipes, furnace insulation, wallboard, plaster, cement), heat-resistant fabrics
    •  Current uses - automobile parts (brakes, clutch facings), roofing materials, vinyl floor tile, cement pipes, and some talc
  • Air - particles can be released by the breakdown or demolition of building materials; they can be released by mining and shipbuilding.

How can I be exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos commonly enter(s) the body through:


Ingestion (swallowing)

  • (infrequent pathway) - swallowing fibers or drinking water that contains asbestos

Inhalation (breathing)

  • (most frequent pathway with highest risk of illness) - breathing asbestos particles in the air

Skin contact

  • (infrequent pathway) - touching particles or fibers; touching equipment or washing clothes that have been exposed to asbestos fibers

What happens when I am exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos exposure to the general public and in the construction trades occurs less frequently than it did prior to the early 1970’s. Most occurrences of exposure today come from construction renovations and vehicle repair.

Breathing moderate to high amounts of varying sized particles of asbestos in the air can cause:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing

Skin contact with asbestos particles can cause:

  • Calluses
  • Corns

Breathing high levels of asbestos fibers for a long time can cause a number of lung-related conditions:

Who is at risk for exposure to Asbestos?

  • Consumers
    • Home remodeling and repair in older homes may release asbestos.
  • Construction, shipbuilding, and demolition workers
    • When older building and shipbuilding materials are broken down or moved, they may release asbestos.
  • Families of workers exposed to asbestos
    • Contaminated clothing and equipment can bring asbestos into the home.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to asbestos, contact your health care professional.

Always wash your hand thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Are you planning any major maintenance, repairs, or remodeling in a home built before July 1989?
  • Find out when your home was built. If your home was built before 1989, have a licensed contractor check for asbestos before you start repairs or remodeling.
  • Hire a licensed contractor to properly remove and dispose of asbestos-containing materials.
  • Never disturb asbestos-containing materials.
  • Do not try to clean up asbestos-containing materials yourself.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

Additional Resources

  • Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk
    National Cancer Institute
    Information about asbestos, including uses, health hazards due to exposure, risk factors for asbestos-related diseases, detection, how workers can protect themselves, and links to relevant programs and organizations.
  • Asbestos. ToxFAQs
    Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
    Factsheet with answers to the most frequently asked questions about asbestos exposure and its effect on human health, developed by a federal public health agency that protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances.
  • Asbestos. Protect Your Family
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information on identifying materials containing asbestos in your home, and what to do if it is found in your environment, including homeowner dos and don'ts, and best practices for hiring asbestos professional inspectors and contractors.
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