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Health Risks Associated With Exposure

Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of several serious diseases, including:
  • Asbestosis -- a chronic lung ailment that can produce shortness of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma -- a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen
  • Other cancers, such as those of the larynx, oropharynx, gastrointestinal tract, and kidney.

Who Is at Risk for Asbestos-Related Health Problems?

Nearly everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from it are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.
Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have been exposed to asbestos. Health hazards from asbestos fibers have been recognized in workers exposed in a variety of occupations, such as:
  • Shipbuilding trades
  • Asbestos mining and milling
  • Manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other asbestos products
  • Insulation work in the construction and building trades
  • Brake repair.
Demolition workers, drywall removers, and firefighters also may be exposed to asbestos fibers.
As a result of government regulations and improved work practices, today's workers (those without previous exposure) are likely to face smaller risks than did those exposed in the past. Although it is known that the risk to workers increases with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures. Generally, those who develop asbestos-related diseases show no signs of illness for a long time after their first exposure. It can take from 10 to 40 years for symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to appear.
There is some evidence that family members of workers heavily exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma. This risk is thought to result from exposure to asbestos fibers brought into the home on the shoes, clothing, skin, and hair of workers. This type of exposure is called paraoccupational exposure. To decrease these exposures, people exposed to it at work are required to shower and change their clothing before leaving the workplace.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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