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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Asbestos Exposure

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Asbestos is a group of minerals with thin microscopic fibers. Because these fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and do not conduct electricity, asbestos has been mined and used widely in the construction, automotive, and other industries.

If products containing asbestos are disturbed, the tiny fibers are released into the air. When they are breathed in, they can become trapped in the lungs and stay there for many years. Over time these fibers can accumulate and lead to serious health problems, including:

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  • Asbestosis, an inflammatory condition of lungs that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and eventually scarring of the lungs that makes it hard to breathe.
  • Mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, chest cavity, or abdomen.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Other lung problems, including pleural plaques (changes in the membranes surrounding the lungs), thickening of the membranes that surround the lungs, and pleural effusions (abnormal collections of fluid between the lungs and the inside wall of the chest.

Studies have also suggested an association between asbestos exposure and other cancers, including cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, throat, kidney, brain, bladder, voice box, gallbladder, and others. However, the evidence is inconclusive.

Asbestos Exposure: Causes and Risks

Asbestos exposure may occur in the workplace, home, or community. Mined and used commercially since the 1800s, asbestos has been used in many products, including: car brake shoes and clutch pads; building materials, including ceiling and floor tiles; paints, coatings, and adhesives; plastics; vermiculite-containing garden products; and some talc-containing crayons. Due to federal regulations and health concerns, asbestos is much less widely used than it was just a few decades ago.

Most cases of asbestos poisoning occur in asbestos workers; however, there is some evidence that family members of workers heavily exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, possibly due to the exposure of asbestos fibers brought into the home on the clothing, skin, and hair. Cases of mesothelioma have also been seen in people living close to asbestos mines.

Another group at risk of developing asbestos-related disease is workers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Asbestos was used in the construction of the North Tower, and hundreds of tons of asbestos were released into the atmosphere during the attack.

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