Even those who don’t work directly with asbestos are at risk of developing mesothelioma, including family members and close associates. Workplace asbestos can be carried on clothing and hair and be easily transmitted. This means even those with indirect exposure are eligible for financial compensation, including funds from asbestos trusts and lawsuit settlements.

Types of Asbestos

Asbestos is the generic name for serpentine and amphibole, two types of silicate minerals. Most occupational asbestos exposure was from serpentine asbestos (also called chrysotile asbestos or white asbestos), which looks like long, wavy strands when examined under a microscope. This is the type of asbestos that makes up 90% of the asbestos used throughout the United States.

The remaining 10% are amphibole asbestos, which include actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, and tremolite. These fibers appear spiky and shorter than serpentine asbestos. Amphibole forms of asbestos are considered more harmful than serpentine asbestos because of the extended amount of time they stay in the lungs.

Where is Asbestos Found?

According to the National Institutes of Health, everyone is exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives because asbestos is a natural substance that is present in our air, water, and soil. This may sound alarming, but exposure at these low concentrations is not enough to get you sick. Those exposed to higher concentrations of asbestos, typically while at work in specific industries, are at the highest risk for asbestos-related diseases.

Occupational Exposure

Among the more than 75 occupational groups that are known to have occupational asbestos exposure are construction workers, first responders, industrial workers and shipyard workers. There are dozens of others. The leading way to come into contact with asbestos was from working close to it.

Asbestos was widely used in construction, plumbing, steel manufacturing and mining. Over 27 million Amercians experienced direct workplace asbestos exposure between 1949 and 1979. Today, most occupational exposure comes from repairs, renovations, removal and maintenance of asbestos-containing products, many which were installed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Exposure for Veterans

More than 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases in the United States are veterans because asbestos was used extensively in all military applications between 1935 and 1975. Even today, experts are continuing to remediate asbestos from military bases.

Veterans who learned construction trades in the military continue to be at risk after service. Trades learned in the military, like plumbing or electrical work, are the same civilian jobs that are at risk for asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma VA claims are among the most common claims due to exposure to asbestos, with ⅓ of mesothelioma diagnoses being a veteran.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary asbestos exposure is caused by interacting with asbestos that is brought into the environment by someone who works with or around asbestos. The fibers were often unintentionally spread throughout the home of a worker when they returned home, clinging to fabrics like furniture, rugs, and laundry, as well as skin. Secondary exposure makes up approximately 20% of mesothelioma cases.

Environmental Exposure

Environmental asbestos exposure occurs in locations where asbestos is present and is intentionally or accidentally disturbed. Intentional disturbance includes processing asbestos ore or mining, where unintentional disturbance can also occur from mining, disturbing a natural deposit of asbestos, or a natural disaster like an earthquake, tornado, or hurricane. Environmental asbestos exposure has risen in specific geographic areas.

Common Exposure Products

Asbestos exposure has been linked to thousands of products that are found in homes and businesses. In some cases, asbestos can be found in nearly every construction product, from wallboards and insulation to floor tiles and electrical wiring.

  • breakpads
  • sparkplugs
  • mufflers
  • valves
  • cement used in construction
  • textiles used for fireproofing clothes
  • asbestos in makeup

Asbestos Exposure from the World Trade Center

Asbestos was used in commercial construction for decades. Even today there are still schools, office buildings, and even older homes with asbestos within their walls. 

When the towers at the World Trade Center collapsed following the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, the buildings dumped tons of asbestos onto the streets and into the air of New York City. In the years since 2001, both first responders and civilians in the area in the days following the attack have developed respiratory issues. As early as 2006, roughly 70% of all 9/11 first responders had reportedly developed respiratory issues.

Asbestos Exposure Symptoms

There are a number of early symptoms that may indicate complications from an asbestos-related disease. If you or someone you know has been exposed to asbestos (or believe you’ve been exposed), you should contact your physician regardless of whether you experience any symptoms.

If you have been exposed to asbestos and experience any of these symptoms seek medical help as soon as possible:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent, worsening cough
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Neck and facial swelling
  • Abdominal swelling and stomach distention
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite suppression
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Clubbing of fingers or toes

Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Because the body cannot break asbestos down, inhaling airborne asbestos fibers can cause significant harm to the lining of the lungs such as scarring, inflammation, tumors, chronic lung diseases, and even cancer.

Factors that impact individual asbestos exposure effects include how much asbestos they were exposed to; how long the exposure happened; type, size, and shape of the asbestos fibers; source of exposure; and individual health factors and lifestyle choices. For example, people who smoked and experienced asbestos exposure are at a greater risk of lung cancer due to the compound effects these have on lung health and the body’s ability to rid itself of inhaled asbestos fibers.

Diseases related to exposure to asbestos include mesothelioma, asbestosis, and pleural diseases. These illnesses often take 10-50 years to cause noticeable symptoms, so understanding the health conditions and common symptoms can help you discuss them with your doctors at their onset to receive proper diagnosis and discuss treatment options.

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Mesothelioma and Other Diseases Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are estimated to cause between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths in the United States annually. Of these, lung cancer causes 8,000 to 10,000 deaths, and asbestosis causes 1,000 deaths. Mesothelioma is diagnosed at a rate of around 3,000 people per year, and in nearly all cases caused solely by exposure to asbestos.


Mesothelioma is cancer caused primarily by asbestos exposure. The most common type is pleural mesothelioma, accounting for 80% of cases, but there are many types and stages of mesothelioma,

Early on, mesothelioma can feel like a common respiratory illness, with a cough, fever and fatigue. In many cases a true diagnosis can take weeks or months, delaying critical medical treatments.

Many mesothelioma patients ignore the early symptoms as common, minor ailments. When they do go to the doctor, patients are often misdiagnosed at first. Persistent symptoms – including abdominal bloating, unplanned weight loss and continual chest pains — should never be ignored.

What mesothelioma treatments are chosen are highly impacted by how early you are diagnosed.

Lung Cancer

Mesothelioma and lung cancer have overlapping symptoms, take decades to develop and are easily misdiagnosed. Asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma and increases the risk for lung cancer.

Despite the similar characteristics, the lungs are impacted in different ways when comparing mesothelioma vs lung cancer. Mesothelioma damages the lining surrounding the lungs (called the pleura), while lung cancer damages the lung tissue itself. Each type of cancer requires individualized treatment.

Other Cancers

While asbestos typically affects the lungs and the surrounding pleural tissues, asbestos can cause other cancers in different parts of the body.. Some asbestos-containing consumer products are applied to different parts of the body, allowing for infection of different organs. Researchers have established causal relationships between asbestos and these cancers:

  • Laryngeal Cancer
  • Ovarian Cancer
  • Testicular Mesothelioma


Asbestosis is a noncancerous inflammatory condition of the lungs associated with exposure to asbestos. While asbestos-related cancers can take 20-50 years to develop, asbestosis symptoms develop faster and can present at around 10 years.

Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing, abnormally wide or round fingernails and toenails, and permanent lung damage.

Other Non Cancerous Asbestos Related Conditions

Pleural effusion, pleural thickening, pleurisy, and pleural plaques, also known as pleural diseases, are conditions that affect the pleura, the lining around the lungs. Most cause thickening of this lining, which is considered the most common sign of asbestos exposure, while others cause inflammation.

Despite the similar characteristics, the lungs are impacted in different ways when Atelectasis is another condition caused by asbestos, where the lungs are not able to fully inflate because the pleural lining folds onto itself due to scarring and inflammation.

Asbestos Exposure Prevention

Most people have been around asbestos in their lifetime, but often at very low levels which are unlikely to make you sick like in water and soil, or in older buildings.

While there are state and federal laws about using asbestos and removing it, asbestos is not banned in the United States despite the known health risks. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration both have guidelines and procedures to help prevent occupational asbestos exposure and exposure within public buildings.

Preventing asbestos exposure includes hiring professional asbestos abatement professionals, taking proper safety precautions like wearing approved respirators, cleaning any contaminated clothing or shoes at the job site, and showering before returning home to prevent secondary asbestos exposure.

If you or a loved one have been injured based on your exposure to asbestos, you may be eligible for compensation. Discussing your case with an experienced mesothelioma attorney can help guide you through the process, helping you get the compensation you deserve for your injuries.

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Written by Richard Stewart

Writer, Content Coordinator and Outreach Director

Richard Stewart is a writer, content coordinator and outreach director with over 12 years of experience covering asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, and treatment options. He is passionate about spreading awareness for asbestos and mesothelioma and helping victims find the information and resources they need online.

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