Asbestos Exposure

Quick Summary

Asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, which is malignant cancer that affects the linings of the lungs, abdomen, heart, and testes. It is also directly responsible for various other diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer, and pleural plaques. Exposure to asbestos is most common in military veterans who worked in construction and manufacturing while in service.

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The Cause of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer. The only thing proven to cause this disease is asbestos exposure. People who inhale or ingest asbestos fibers increase their chances of numerous health effects, including asbestosis, pleural effusions, and lung cancer.

In the 1970s, scientists discovered that there was a connection between asbestos exposure and malignant mesothelioma. Production of asbestos slowed in the 1980s when the government started implementing regulations. Before these regulations, manufacturers and other companies used asbestos extensively since the early 1940s.

Millions of miners and factory workers suffered from asbestos exposure during the boom years of asbestos. Asbestos exposure puts these workers at risk of developing mesothelioma. People are still dying today from asbestos exposure they got decades ago.

Did you know?

Americans consumed about 803,000 metric tons of asbestos in 1973. This number dropped to 360 tons by 2015.

Risks of Exposure to Asbestos

Asbestos fibers irritate the abdominal or lung tissues, resulting in scarring and inflammation. The scar tissue can cause stomach or chest pain, shortness of breath, and weight loss. Once a person is exposed, it can take up to 50 years for them to develop any health effects of asbestos.

Here are 4 aspects that affect your level of asbestos exposure:

  1. Longevity: Those exposed for a longer period of time get exposed to more asbestos.
  2. Breathing rate: Those who breathe faster or deeper than others inhale more asbestos.
  3. Friability: Friable asbestos breaks apart easily, making it easier to inhale.
  4. Concentration: People breathe in more asbestos if there’s a higher concentration of asbestos fibers in the air.

Mesothelioma cancer is one of the most common complications of asbestos exposure, affecting up to 3,000 U.S. citizens per year. Lung cancer can arise from asbestos exposure. Lung cancer caused by asbestos affects another 3,000 people in the U.S. per year.

Another common complication of asbestos exposure is a lung disease called asbestosis. This is an inflammation of the lung caused by irritation from asbestos fibers. It affects the entire lungs, with symptoms of shortness of breath and a cough.

How Asbestos Exposure Causes Cancer

Asbestos fibers are light. They float in the air where people can inhale or ingest the tiny asbestos fibers. It usually takes an extended amount of exposure to a lot of asbestos to get an asbestos-related disease. But any amount of asbestos exposure is considered risky.

Most people with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos in the workplace. People who work in asbestos mines, shipyards, and construction are especially at risk.

People who renovate older homes come in contact with asbestos all the time. Older homes (built before 1980) are likely to be insulated with asbestos. Disturbing asbestos-containing products causes the fibers to become airborne. Sandblasting, cutting, or grinding objects made from asbestos — or removing the material through abatement — also makes fibers airborne.

Once the particles get into the lungs, they usually can’t be expelled. The tiny asbestos fibers stick to the lining of the lungs and wedge deep into the linings. The cells in this lining experience mutations, eventually leading to mesothelioma.

Places of Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos can happen in a variety of places. Most of the time, asbestos exposure is related to the workplace, although it can be inhaled/ingested in the home as well.

Here are some common places where people have been exposed to asbestos:

  • Schools
  • Metalwork factories
  • Power plants
  • Shipyards
  • Oil refineries
  • Chemical plants

Military exposure is another way to become affected by asbestos. All branches of the military are affected by asbestos exposure.

Ship and submarine insulation are two of the more common places where military personnel become exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is found on cruisers, aircraft carriers, submarines, battleships, frigates, and destroyers so that Navy personnel are at the greatest risk of an asbestos-related illness.

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Asbestos-Containing Materials

There are literally thousands of products manufactured that use asbestos as part of the product.

Common products that were made with asbestos include:

  • Drywall
  • Insulation containing vermiculite
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Vinyl adhesives
  • Roofing and siding
  • Textured paint
  • Cement sheeting
  • Paper insulation
  • Millboard
  • Pipes coated with asbestos blanket or tape
  • Gaskets for furnaces
  • Heat-resistant fabric
  • Clutches and brakes in cars

Because it is found in insulation, asbestos can be found in many homes built before the 1980s. Renovation and demolition projects in older homes can launch asbestos fibers into the air. The fibers can be inhaled by homeowners and family members.

Types of Asbestos Exposure

There are many ways to get exposed to asbestos. Most people with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos in one of the following ways: occupationally, secondhand, or environmentally.

Occupational Exposure

Certain occupations are at an increased risk of asbestos exposure. This includes plumbers, construction workers, firefighters, shipbuilders, drywall tapers, auto mechanics, and electricians. These people are now legally required to wear protective equipment when working in areas where asbestos exposure is likely.

Workplaces are currently monitored for asbestos exposure by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While there has been a cutback on the use of asbestos in these areas, asbestos isn’t banned in the U.S. People can still be exposed to asbestos materials in the workplace.

Secondhand Exposure

Secondary exposure to asbestos can occur when family members of people who work with asbestos inhale or ingest the fibers the workers bring home from the job site. Asbestos can get in the laundry or be passed by having close contact with someone who has asbestos on their work clothes.

Children have been known to have asbestos exposure from being near a family member who has asbestos dust on their clothing. Asbestos can be found on the furniture in the homes of people who are exposed to asbestos at work.

Environmental Exposure

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. Everyone gets exposed to a little bit at some point in their lives. People who live near an asbestos mine, however, experience a higher concentration of asbestos in the air. Residents in these areas are at a higher risk of inhaling large amounts of asbestos.

People who live near factories where asbestos is used can also get asbestos exposure from the environment. Asbestos exposure can also happen after a natural disaster. When homes a storm destroys homes, it also destroys the asbestos-containing materials in the home. This releases the deadly fibers into the air.

Companies Hid the Dangers of Asbestos

Once it was common knowledge that asbestos increased the risk of mesothelioma, many patients turned to the courts for answers. These mesothelioma patients believed their employers were responsible for their exposure history. The courts uncovered evidence that this was true.

One example comes from a memo written by T.L. Wharton. He was a manager at a manufacturing plant owned by Babcock and Wilcox. In 1978, regulators told his plant to post warning signs for asbestos.

After a company meeting, Wharton wrote, “As the situation stands right now, no one in the meeting wants the warning signs posted at this time. Readings of the dust and suspected carcinogen concentrations will not be taken until the alternatives and solutions are examined.”

This memo showed that Wharton and his associates directly violated standards set to protect workers.

Did you know?

As far back as 1948, some people in the industry knew that asbestos caused asbestosis.

The next year a company memo showed that Exxon knew the mineral could cause lung cancer. There is evidence throughout the decades showing that companies knew the dangers of asbestos, but they continued producing the products anyway.

As late as the 2000s, companies have tried to discredit the health risks of asbestos. They have done this to avoid paying asbestos workers with mesothelioma.

Who’s Responsible for Your Asbestos Exposure?

Mesothelioma patients are victims of corporate negligence. Companies knew that their products could cause cancer and other serious health problems, but they continued to produce asbestos-containing products and hide the risk factors.

Since these companies supplied the military with tons of asbestos products, a disproportionate number of veterans have developed asbestos-related lung diseases like mesothelioma.

“For more than 50 years, company after company was willing to lie to their workers about the known hazards of asbestos, mislead regulators, manipulate science, and delay worker safeguards,” the Environmental Working Group said in a 2004 report.

Here are some key facts about asbestos exposure:

  • Many companies could have prevented exposing their employees.
  • People in certain occupations had more exposure than others.
  • There is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Most veterans are exceptionally loyal to their military branch. This may stop you from going after the benefits you deserve. But remember: the U.S. Armed Forces aren’t to blame for your asbestos exposure. The companies who supplied the military with asbestos are to blame.

Additionally, your asbestos exposure may have come from a career after the military. There are benefits and compensation you could be eligible for right now. These benefits can help pay for health care and other costs of living.

Find out your benefits now.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

View Sources

Environmental Protection Agency. “Learn about asbestos.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 5th, 2017.

EWG Action Fund. “Asbestos: Think Again.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 5th, 2017.

EWG Action Fund. “Asbestos companies hid the danger for decades.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 5th, 2017.

Henley, S. Jane. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. “Mesothelioma incidence in 50 states and the District of Columbia, United States, 2003–2008.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 5th, 2017.

National Cancer Institute. “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 5th, 2017.

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