When you think about asbestos exposure, you probably first imagine someone who was exposed to these dangerous fibers on the job. To be sure, that is where most people were exposed, and the damage has been as widespread as it has been heartbreaking. Countless people have wound up with debilitating diseases like mesothelioma[1] as a result of ongoing workplace exposure that happened decades ago. 

The Asbestos Danger Hasn’t Gone Away

Unfortunately, exposure at work is only one way[2] in which someone may have been harmed by asbestos. There are plenty of other opportunities to be exposed, and in some cases, that exposure can lead to serious illness over the long term. Given the virtually invisible nature of asbestos – it’s invisible to the naked eye, and it offers no smell or taste for the senses to detect – plenty of people have been exposed and have no idea that they were ever put at risk. 

In this article, we’ll highlight some of the risks that exist for asbestos exposure outside of a working environment. Most of the commercial and industrial settings that led to exposure decades ago have been eliminated, but that doesn’t mean the threat is gone. Understanding the various ways one can be exposed to asbestos will help you understand if there is a possibility that you or a loved one has been put at risk. 

What is Asbestos?

Before getting into some of the existing, ongoing environmental risks of asbestos exposure, it’s important to understand what asbestos is and why it can harm people. Asbestos has claimed a lot of headlines over the past few decades, and for good reasons. Most people have at least heard the term asbestos, but many don’t really know what it is or why it is such a threat. 

National Cancer Institute: Every type of asbestos causes cancer and health problems.

Asbestos is an umbrella term comprising a group of naturally occurring minerals that were once prized for their impressive durability and heat resistance. The use of these minerals was widespread at one time, and to be sure, asbestos was able to create or improve many excellent products. 

Tragically, using asbestos so widely also proved to be extremely harmful to humans when released into the air and inhaled. Companies who knew that asbestos was harmful long before the general public continued to use it because of how well it worked and how affordable it was as a raw material. That continued use led to the suffering of millions and many billions being paid in damages. 

Regulated But Not Banned, and Still In Many Buildings and Roads

These days, the use of asbestos is heavily regulated in the United States and many other countries. However, since the health impacts of asbestos take many years to appear, plenty of people are still getting sick from exposure that happened a long time ago. Also, as we will discuss below, environmental exposure is still possible today, so the threat is far from a thing of the past.

Ongoing Testing and Monitoring is Vital

It’s vital to pay attention to any possible asbestos exposure because of the severity of the illnesses that are associated with it. Conditions like lung cancer and mesothelioma are often fatal, and even in cases that lead to less severe illness, the affected individual often deals with significant pain, difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue, and much more. 

Exposure to Naturally Occurring Asbestos

As mentioned above, asbestos is naturally occurring. Therefore, it makes sense that it is possible for people to be exposed to it out in the “real world,” rather than just in factories and commercial settings. With that being the case, why aren’t more people harmed by asbestos in their daily routine? Fortunately, the vast majority of asbestos that exists in nature is essentially locked away and is not floating around in the air, waiting to be breathed in. 

Asbestos breaks into tiny airborne particles, some microscopic, with no taste or smell.

In order to be harmful, asbestos needs to break free so the fibers can float up into the air. While it’s possible for that to happen through a natural process like erosion, it’s more commonly going to happen as a result of the construction process for something like a new building, or even a road. 

When the heavy machinery starts to break up the earth, it’s entirely possible that asbestos will be released into the air and can be breathed in by those working on the site or spending time in the area. While this type of asbestos exposure is likely better than being exposed inside a building like a factory, inhaling any amount of asbestos is dangerous for human health. 

Air Tests and Lab Sampling for Potential Asbestos-Containing Materials (ACMs)

It’s important for people to be aware that the risk of asbestos exposure exists in a specific area, so they can avoid spending time there, or so preventative measures can be taken to limit the risk. Too many people have been harmed throughout the years already by asbestos and every additional victim is one too many. 

Asbestos Risks in Renovation and Demolition

Perhaps the most likely way to be exposed to asbestos in the modern world[3] is through the process of renovation or demolition of an older building[4]. Older buildings are likely to have products in them that contain asbestos, and when those products are disturbed while work is being done, the fibers can be released into the air and the health of everyone in the space will be put at risk. 

The big problem here is that many homeowners venture on their own into renovation projects without understanding the risks that are in play. Not knowing that asbestos may be lying in wait, people will go into renovation projects that involve busting open walls, tearing down ceilings, breaking up tiles, and much more. 

Any of those actions, while they might not seem like a big deal on their own, have the potential to let asbestos fibers into the air. This could turn an otherwise safe and comfortable home into a risky place to spend time, and everyone in the family will be put in danger.

Proper Building Renovation without Asbestos Exposure 

Does this mean that older homes can never be renovated, for fear of letting asbestos loose in the space? No – but it does mean that extreme care needs to be taken to make sure the project doesn’t go wrong. Specifically, the house should be tested for asbestos in advance of getting started on a renovation project. Rather than taking one’s chances with a DIY, at-home testing kit, it’s much better to have the testing done by a professional who knows how to do it properly. 

Should it happen that testing comes back positive for the presence of asbestos, the renovation project will need to take a different route. As one option, the items that contain asbestos could just be left alone, if possible, and the project can continue around them without disturbing those components. When this isn’t possible and removal of asbestos-containing products is necessary, that work should be done by a professional in order to minimize the potential for it to become airborne. 

Asbestos Spread Through Transportation

One other way that asbestos can be distributed in the environment is through the transportation of materials that contain asbestos. This isn’t as much of a risk as it was when asbestos was used far more frequently in a range of products, but it can still happen with the remaining things that feature asbestos. If asbestos makes its way into the air when something is being installed, or manufactured, anyone nearby could wind up being at risk. 

A Long List of Potential Harms

Why is exposure to asbestos such a big deal? Unfortunately, it’s because of the profound damage these fibers can do to the human body. Although it’s unnoticeable while being ingested, inhaling asbestos does serious harm when fibers get lodged inside. Over time, these can make people very sick, leading to life-threatening health conditions. 

There tends to be a significant lag time between inhaling asbestos and the fibers causing noticeable harm, too. The process usually plays out over decades, so an individual who gets sick might not even remember or know they were exposed so many years ago. Once the illness does start to set in, however, it can be extremely painful and may even threaten the individual’s life within a very short amount of time. 

Asbestos Fibers: Dangerous to breathe or swallow from the air

Illness caused by asbestos is largely a respiratory issue. When asbestos fibers are breathed in, they lodge themselves in the lungs and gradually do damage over time. Eventually, the affected individual is likely to be dealing with problems such as asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma. 

But the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society say asbestos can also be swallowed, and cause throat cancer and cancers of the digestive system (stomach cancer and colorectal cancer).

All of these are serious issues which can have a major negative impact on quality of life. 

It’s also possible for the fibers that get into the air and settle into soil and water, which will then have an impact on the environment in that area. People, plants, and animals can be negatively impacted when asbestos is spread around in this way, and the whole ecosystem will be worse for it.

Trying to Stay Safe

If you or a loved one have already been exposed to asbestos, there is unfortunately nothing that can be done to reverse that exposure. However, it’s important to seek treatment for any symptoms as soon as possible. It is also still worthwhile to make sure no more exposure takes place moving forward. Or, in the case where a member of the family has been exposed and is already sick, the rest of the family can pay attention to preventive measures. 

It’s no longer a concern to take employment in a place where asbestos exposure will take place, as strict regulations have been enforced for decades that have all but eliminated that threat. These days, one of the most present threats for most people to be exposed to asbestos can be found within one’s own home. 

Most buildings constructed before the 1980s contained asbestos materials, and many still do.

As mentioned earlier, many buildings[5] – including residential structures – contain asbestos in one form or another. So, when planning a renovation or demolition project, it’s important to consider the possibility of asbestos being present. If that’s the case, as is likely if the building is older, taking preventive measures to test and remove any trace of the mineral is key. 

If your exposure to asbestos is the fault of another party, legal action may be appropriate. There are asbestos trusts that have been established with money available to be claimed by those who were harmed. Filing a claim with a trust is an easier, faster process that filing a traditional lawsuit, so money may be available sooner than expected. Of course, it’s also possible to file a lawsuit if that is deemed to be the more appropriate path in your case. Take a moment to get in touch with a qualified asbestos attorney to learn more about your options and the types of compensation that may be available.

[1] https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet

[2] https://mds.marshall.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1193&context=colaconf

[3] https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/10/11/5629/pdf 

[4] https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/10/11/5629/pdf

[5] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-031-24541-1_6