Asbestos: Exposure and Dangers

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on May 11, 2024
9 min read

Asbestos is the name for six kinds of minerals found naturally in the earth. They're made up of bundles of fibers that are flexible, lightweight, and resistant to heat, fire, chemicals, and electricity. That makes them very useful in construction and manufacturing.

However, asbestos fibers can cause serious lung problems if you breathe them in. That's led to bans on the use of the mineral in more than 60 countries, including, recently, the U.S.

Asbestos history

Modern commercial production in North America began in the late 1800s and had its heyday during and after World War II. It was commonly used in building materials for homes, schools, and businesses, as well as in shipbuilding, automotive parts, and even textiles.

After the health risks became widely understood in the 1970s, worker safety rules were put in place and the use of asbestos started dropping. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only one part of the chemical industry still uses it as a raw material. It's also in newly imported brake parts and a handful of other industrial products.

Why is it dangerous?

The fibers that form asbestos separate easily into tiny pieces when they're handled or damaged. They're too small to see and easy to breathe in. They can build up in your lungs and cause health problems.

When was asbestos banned?

The U.S. government banned the import of chrysotile asbestos and nearly all uses of it effective May 2024. According to the EPA, chrysotile is the only type of asbestos still being used in the U.S. Industries that rely on it have between 5 and 12 years to phase it out. 

Most products containing asbestos were banned in 1989, but courts overturned most of that rule. Only a small part remained in place, including a ban on asbestos in paper products and any new use of the mineral.

The EPA is considering new rules on what is called “legacy use” asbestos -- the material that was produced decades ago and is still found in older consumer and industrial products.

There are several, but only one type, chrysotile asbestos, is still imported, processed, or distributed in the U.S.

Chrysotile asbestos

Also called “white” asbestos, this is the most commonly used type, making up 90%-95% of the asbestos used in buildings in the U.S. Manufacturers also used it in a variety of insulation and fireproofing goods. However, its use is now being phased out.

Blue asbestos

Research suggests this type, also called crocidolite, may be tied to more illnesses and deaths than any other type of asbestos. Manufacturers rarely used it because it was less resistant to heat than other types. But it can be found in things such as cement, tiles, and insulation.

Other types

Amosite. Also called “brown” asbestos, experts consider it one of the most dangerous types. Amosite is the second most commonly used type after chrysotile, in about 5% of the asbestos materials used in U.S. buildings.

Actinolite. This was used in things such as cement, insulation, paints, sealants, and drywall.

Anthophyllite. This rare form of asbestos wasn't used as often as other types in consumer goods. But you can find it in some cement and insulation materials.

Tremolite. This type led to many cases of cancer and diseases related to asbestos, and it's not mined anymore. It was previously used in products such as paint, sealants, insulation, roofing, and plumbing materials.

You might not notice any symptoms until years after you were exposed to asbestos. In general, it could bring on signs such as:

  • Feeling like you can't get enough air
  • Wheezing or hoarseness
  • A lingering cough that gradually gets worse
  • Coughing up blood
  • Pain or tightness in your chest
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling in your neck or face
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Anemia

These can also be symptoms of many other conditions. So, get checked by your doctor so they can find out what's going on with you.

If you think you've been exposed to asbestos at some point, talk to your doctor about it, whether you're having symptoms or not.

If you breathe in asbestos fibers over long periods, it increases your risk for diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Smokers are even more affected. That's because cigarette smoke irritates lung passages. This makes it harder for the lungs to remove asbestos fibers.

If you've worked with the substance, shared a home with someone who has, or lived close to an asbestos mine, see your doctor if you have trouble breathing or believe it's affected your health.

They can do a chest X-ray or a pulmonary function test to see how much air your lungs can hold. A CT scan or biopsy might help them find out whether you have one of several diseases linked to asbestos.


This is a type of cancer that affects the lining that covers the lungs, chest, or abdomen. An early warning sign is the buildup of fluid around the lungs. Other symptoms include pain around the rib cage, problems breathing, a cough, pain or lumps in the belly, fatigue, and constipation.

People who have this kind of rare cancer were typically exposed to asbestos at work or lived with someone who was. It can take up to 20 years for symptoms to show up. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.


This is a condition that affects the lungs. It can cause cough, shortness of breath, and even permanent lung damage. Symptoms might also include chest pain, and fingernails and toenails that look oddly wide or round.

Like mesothelioma, it doesn't usually happen until years after a person has breathed in asbestos fibers on a regular basis. People with asbestosis are more likely to develop lung cancer.

There's no way to heal the damage asbestos causes to the small sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. But your doctor will help you manage your symptoms. They may prescribe oxygen to help you breathe. If you have severe symptoms, you may even be placed on a lung transplant list.

Lung cancer

Your risk of developing cancerous tumors in your lungs goes up the more you breathe in asbestos fibers. The risk increases if you also smoke. There's also evidence linking asbestos exposure to throat, ovarian, stomach, and colorectal cancers.

Pleural disease

This includes things such as changes in the membranes surrounding the lungs and a buildup of fluid in your chest cavity. Having these may increase your chance of getting lung cancer.

Unless you work directly with asbestos regularly, your chances of getting related diseases are low.

The most affected individuals are those who mined it or manufactured it, especially in the years before worker safeguards. It's still a concern for people who do building demolition or renovation because of how widely it was used in construction.

When the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001, hundreds of tons of asbestos got into the air. Rescue workers, nearby residents, and those who helped with cleanup efforts may have inhaled it.

The long-term effect of this exposure is just starting to be learned. While it's not clear whether there's a connection to asbestos, tens of thousands of survivors and first responders have been diagnosed with breathing diseases including lung cancer.

A small number of mesothelioma deaths have been reported. Since it takes decades for mesothelioma to develop, cases could rise in the coming years.

Most products made in the U.S. today are asbestos-free. And goods that still contain asbestos that could be inhaled must have labels saying so.

But in the past, many types of home-building products and materials had asbestos in them.

Asbestos insulation

Because of its heat-blocking properties, asbestos was very popular as a form of insulation, especially in buildings built between 1930 and 1950. It was blown into walls and attics, sprayed on ceilings, and nailed between wall studs in block form. It's also in a kind of loose-fill insulation made from vermiculite.

You'll also find asbestos insulation in the form of blankets or paper tape around pipes and ductwork.

Asbestos sheet

The material was made into strong but light cement sheets, which were used as wallboard and siding, as well as put underneath flooring.

Asbestos tiles

Asbestos is in many vinyl floor tiles, the adhesives used to install them, and the backings of vinyl sheet flooring that was installed in homes and commercial buildings before 1980. These products aren't considered dangerous because it's difficult for them to crumble and release fibers.

It can also be found in acoustic tiles used in drop ceilings. That material crumbles more easily.

Asbestos roof

Many kinds of roofing products were made with asbestos, including asphalt and cement shingles, felt underlayment, flashing, and sealant.

Other places you might find it

Other items that may contain asbestos include:

  • Material sprayed on surfaces to soundproof or decorate them, such as popcorn ceilings
  • Textured paints and patching compounds (which fill holes and cracks) for walls and ceiling joints
  • Heat-resistant fabrics, packaging materials, gaskets, and coatings
  • Artificial ashes and embers for gas fireplaces
  • Older products such as fireproof gloves, stovetop pads, ironing board covers, and certain hairdryers
  • Car brakes, clutches, and transmission parts

In general, you can't tell if something in your home contains asbestos just by looking at it (unless it has a warning label). Leave it alone if you're not sure.

When to get your home inspected for asbestos

Think about getting your home inspected if:

  • You plan to remodel it.
  • It has damaged materials, such as crumbling drywall or insulation that's falling apart.

If your home was built before 1980, it's likely there will be asbestos somewhere. Hire an experienced and accredited inspector to check your home. They can safely take samples and send them to a qualified lab for testing.

Asbestos testing kit

The EPA recommends against trying to take samples yourself. This could be risky for your health if you do it incorrectly.

However, you can find home asbestos test kits at hardware stores and online. If you're going to use one, be sure to follow the instructions carefully to keep from spreading any fibers that are released.

Materials with asbestos in them probably won't put your health at risk unless they get damaged or disturbed. If you know something in your home contains asbestos and it's in good condition, just check it now and then for signs of wear or damage.

If you have damage or are planning a home improvement project, find an accredited contractor who can handle the material safely. There are two options: 

Containment. The material containing asbestos can be left in place and either covered or coated with a sealer so that the fibers can't be released.

Removal. This option may be necessary in case of major damage or if there's no way to avoid disturbing the asbestos.

Don't try to do repairs or removal yourself. You or your family could end up inhaling fibers that might get released.

After the contractor finishes the work, ask your inspector or an independent air testing contractor to check for asbestos fibers in the air. That can tell you for sure if your home is safe and if the asbestos repair or removal work was a success.

Your state may be able to connect you with accredited professionals near you.

Asbestos is so common that everyone has been around it at some point. It's in the air, water, and soil. But when you're exposed at such low levels, it's unlikely to make you sick.

However, when buildings are demolished and homes are remodeled, asbestos can fill the air. It happens as the materials that contain it are destroyed. Home maintenance and repairs may also release the toxic fibers. You have less to worry about if you're around asbestos products that haven't been damaged in any way.

If you have to do a home project that might expose you to asbestos, experts suggest some tips to keep dangerous fibers from getting in the air:

  • Keep the material wet.
  • Don't tear, cut, or grind it.
  • Set it down gently, rather than throwing or dropping it.

Not every landfill will accept trash containing asbestos, and you may need a special disposal permit.

Asbestos is the name for a group of minerals made up of fibers that can cause serious lung problems if you breathe them in. It was widely used in manufacturing, construction materials, and consumer products until the health dangers became known. If you have it in your home, it's best to leave it alone or hire a professional to remove it.

Does asbestos cause cancer?

When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can get lodged deep in your lungs, causing inflammation and other damage over time. It can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a kind of cancer that affects the lining around the lungs and in the chest cavity. It's also linked to ovarian, stomach, throat, and colorectal cancers.

How serious is one-time asbestos exposure?

Most diseases are linked to heavy or long-term exposure. But experts believe no amount is safe. Some people with only brief exposure have developed asbestos-related illnesses.