Asbestos, a toxic mineral fiber that was used in manufacturing throughout the 20th century, is now widely known as a carcinogen that can affect the lungs through inflammation and scarring. While most people are exposed to mild levels of asbestos, some are at higher risk of contracting asbestos-related illnesses than others.
“People at the highest risk of developing an asbestos-related illness are those who worked in an occupation with a high risk of asbestos exposure,” Kern Selby, RN and Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center, says. “These include construction workers, firefighters, power plant workers, industrial workers, shipyard workers and Navy veterans who served between the 1930s and 1980s, when ships and other military facilities contained asbestos products.”
Others who might be at risk for high asbestos exposure are those who have been exposed to housing insulation that contains asbestos. Even though asbestos is banned for use in houses, homes that were built before the ban can still pose a problem—especially for those doing remodeling and renovation. And, even if you have an older home and have been exposed to asbestos, it's hard to know what impact that exposure will have because symptoms usually don't appear for many years later.
“The harmful effects may not manifest immediately because the mineral stays in the body for years after exposure," Dr. Shuhan He, an Emergency Medicine Physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Cambridge, tells WebMD.
The important thing is to avoid disturbing insulation that contains the toxic substance and to contact a state asbestos authority if disturbance occurs.
Asbestos can also be found in the soil outside of these houses. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommends those who are around asbestos-contaminated soil to use water to clean patios and avoid bringing shoes inside the home.
Dr. He recommends getting your home tested for asbestos if you are concerned. “The best option you have is to test the insulation in your building,” Dr. He says. “You can take a sample to a laboratory, or if you do not feel safe interacting with the substance, find a local expert and hire them to check your house.”
Asbestos-related illnesses, which can take decades to appear, include asbestosis, or inflammation of the lungs, pleural plaques, or changes to the lung’s membranes and pleural effusions, collections of fluid that affect the lungs and chest cavities. Asbestos poisoning can also cause cancers like mesothelioma and cancers of the ovaries, lungs and larynx.