Asbestos is a mineral fiber found in older building materials. Asbestos can cause cancer.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is the name given to a group of six different fibrous minerals that occur naturally in some rocks and soil. Asbestos comes in the form of long fibers that are strong, heat-resistant, and flexible enough to be woven; these fibers can be white, green, blue, or gray-green. Asbestos has no taste or smell.
Asbestos has been used in building materials such as insulation and fireproofing; roofing shingles; ceiling and floor tiles; electrical insulation; furnace and hot pipe coverings; friction products such as automobile brake parts; cement products; coatings; plastics; gaskets; textiles; packaging; and heat-resistant fabrics and clothing, such as gloves.
Because of health concerns, all new uses of asbestos in the United States were banned in July 1989. Most asbestos uses established before that date are still allowed. The use of asbestos in hand-held hair dryers was voluntarily stopped in 1979. Schools are required to test for asbestos and remove it or cover it up if found.
You are most likely to be exposed to asbestos by inhaling asbestos particles in the air, but you can also be exposed through skin contact with asbestos or swallowing asbestos fibers.
You can be exposed to high levels of asbestos at work if you are a miner, make products that contain asbestos, demolish buildings containing asbestos, remove asbestos from buildings, work in the construction industry, repair and service automobile brakes, work in shipbuilding and ship repair, or wear asbestos safety clothes.
You can be exposed to asbestos if you work or live in a building where asbestos has been incorrectly or poorly removed. Your exposure can be higher if materials containing asbestos are disturbed during demolition work, building or home maintenance, repairs, and remodeling.
You can be exposed to asbestos at home by inhaling asbestos that has drifted into the air from worn down or crumbling insulation, ceiling and floor tiles, and automotive products that contain asbestos. Families of workers exposed to asbestos can also be exposed when contaminated clothing, shoes, and equipment are brought home and when clothing is laundered. You can be exposed to asbestos in drinking water or if you use products that contain asbestos.
Simultaneous exposure to asbestos and cigarette smoking significantly increases the chances of getting lung cancer.
Asbestos is listed as a human carcinogen in the Fourteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it has been shown to cause cancer of the respiratory tract, lungs, vocal cords, and ovaries. There is limited evidence that it causes cancer of the colorectum, throat, and stomach.
A history of asbestos exposure at work is reported in about 70 percent to 80 percent of all cases of mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer of the mesothelium, the membrane that covers and protects most of the internal organs of the body. Repeated exposure to high levels of asbestos in the workplace can also cause asbestosis, a disease that can lead to disability and death; it scars the lungs and can cause the heart to enlarge.
These diseases do not develop immediately but may appear many years after exposure. The first signs of asbestosis include persistent chest pain, coughing, a crackling sound in breathing, and shortness of breath.
Respiratory exposure to high levels of asbestos at work can cause chest pain, wheezing, low oxygen content in the blood, weight loss, clubbing of the fingers, and warts on the hands. Breathing lower levels of asbestos may cause plaque in the pleural membranes that surround the lungs, which can eventually lead to restricted breathing.
If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Asbestos (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
Asbestos (Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center) (PDF — 346.82 KB)
Asbestos (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk (National Cancer Institute)
Asbestos home page (Environmental Protection Agency)
Asbestos. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Asbestos. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Asbestos. Protect Your Family (Environmental Protection Agency)
Asbestos. School Buildings (Environmental Protection Agency)
Asbestos. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Asbestos: Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases (World Health Organization)
Map of Releases of Asbestos in the United States. TOXMAP (National Library of Medicine)
Last Updated: February 13, 2017