Asbestos exposure occurs when people come into contact with asbestos fibers. The most common type of exposure to asbestos is from inhalation of white asbestos powder. Asbestos, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has caused more harm to public health than any other toxic substance. Nearly 28 million people were exposed through the workplace between 1940 and 1970, with millions of others suffering secondary exposure.

Inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers is the most common route of exposure, although ingestion is equally carcinogenic. Inhalation exposure to asbestos occurs when rigid asbestos particles become lodged in the respiratory tract. Once embedded in the soft tissue there, they are very difficult for the body to remove or break down.

Over time, these particles may form scar tissue, which can increase the chances of developing lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma. While there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, health risks increase at greater concentrations and durations of exposure.

Which Type of Asbestos are People Exposed to Most Often?

Chrysotile is a white, powdery form of asbestos that accounted for up to 95% of all asbestos use between 1940 and 1970 and is responsible for the greatest number of associated health problems.  Millions of Americans have been exposed to asbestos in both occupational settings and within residences due to airborne asbestos fibers carried home on the clothing and hair of workers.

What are the Physical Effects of Asbestos Exposure?

Because airborne asbestos particles are microscopic, most people who were exposed were unaware that they were breathing these toxic fibers. Once inhaled, the particles lodge within the tissues of the respiratory tract and accumulate over time. Due to their rigid properties, they are very difficult to break down by normal metabolic processes. As a result, inflammation and/or scarring of tissues is likely to develop and may lead to an asbestos related disease later in life.

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer which develops in the lining of the lungs and/or abdominal tissues and is associated strictly with exposure to asbestos. The chances of developing lung cancer are increased in those who have been exposed to asbestos, particularly when those same individuals have smoked cigarettes. Asbestosis is a disorder within the lungs that leads to shortness of breath, coughing and other respiratory problems and may eventually develop into a more serious disorder.

Is There a Safe Level of Exposure to Asbestos?

While there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, the health hazards increase with exposure to greater concentrations of asbestos over a longer duration of time. Asbestos reached its peak level of use between 1940 and 1970, during which time nearly 28 million Americans were exposed to the fibers in an occupational setting. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) claims that asbestos fibers have been more damaging to public health than any other material in history.

Sadly, many of the manufacturers and organizations who added asbestos to as many as 3000 different consumer products were aware of the dangers yet continued utilizing the substance for decades as a result of greed and lack of concern for human lives. Governmental regulations and litigation have reduced the number of people who are exposed to asbestos each year, although the risk continues for workers in certain industries.

Secondary Exposure Impacted Women and Children

Before governmental regulations were in place, asbestos was handled haphazardly in most situations and workers were not required to remove their asbestos covered clothing before leaving the workplace. As a result, millions of additional Americans, mainly women and children, were secondarily exposed to asbestos fibers when their husband or father returned home.

Women who washed clothing in small, poorly ventilated laundry rooms on a nearly daily basis may be at the greatest risk of developing an asbestos related disease, particularly because their smaller lung capacities make them more susceptible to these types of illnesses. Children who greeted their fathers with hugs were also vulnerable, in part due to their extremely small lung volumes.

Chrysotile Comprised the Majority of Asbestos Usage

Six different types of naturally occurring asbestos exist, yet the white, powdery form known as chrysotile comprised as much as 95 percent of all asbestos usage within the nation. Although this is not inherently the most dangerous form of asbestos, its widespread use has been and remains responsible for the greatest amount of exposure in both past and present situations.

Veterans who served in the Navy during WWII or the Korean War represent the group of individuals suffering from the greatest number of asbestos related disorders, although workers employed in nearly any manufacturing industry in the mid twentieth century were also likely exposed. Some workers continue to be at risk today, as asbestos containing materials remain in countless numbers of older homes, commercial buildings and industrial facilities.