What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral found in rocks and soil. Because of its fiber strength and heat resistance, asbestos has been used widely in building materials and other commercial products for insulation and as a fire retardant. Old and brittle asbestos products can release tiny, microscopic, fibers. These fibers can remain suspended in the air and enter your lungs when you inhale. These inhaled fibers can cause lung damage, including cancer. Because of its health risks, asbestos manufacturing and use is now regulated by the federal government.
Sources of Asbestos
Until the 1980s, asbestos was commonly used in products such as insulation, roofing, siding shingles, floor tiles, acoustic ceiling tiles, wallboard, textured paints, heat-resistant fabrics and automotive parts. Although most asbestos-containing products can still legally be manufactured, imported, processed and distributed in the U.S., this has declined significantly.
Older homes, schools and commercial buildings are the most common places to find asbestos-containing products. If these products are in good condition and not disturbed, they are not immediately dangerous. However, when a building containing asbestos is renovated or torn down, or if the asbestos is damaged or disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers may be released into the air. These fibers may remain airborne for long periods of time before settling in dust.
People working with or around asbestos (miners, asbestos abatement workers, custodial and maintenance workers and insulation workers) face greater risk of exposure than the general public. If proper safety precautions—masks and coverings—are not used, workers are at risk. If the workers bring home work clothes and equipment, they may carry asbestos fibers home to their families, placing them at risk.
How Asbestos Impacts Health
When you inhale asbestos, the tiny fibers enter your air passages. Your body's natural defenses remove most of these fibers. The majority will be carried away or coughed up in a layer of mucus that protects your lungs. However, some fibers may bypass those defenses and lodge deep within your lungs. Those fibers can remain in place for a very long time and may never be removed. Most of the harmful impacts of asbestos will not be seen immediately. They often develop years after exposure occurs.
Asbestos can cause cancer. Inhaling asbestos fibers increases the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the thin lining surrounding the lungs and other organs. The risk depends on how much you inhale, how long ago you were exposed and whether you have a smoking history. Smoking, combined with asbestos exposure, increases your chances of developing lung cancer.
Exposure to high concentrations of airborne asbestos over long periods can also create scar tissue in the lungs, in a condition called asbestosis. The scar tissue does not behave like normal, healthy lung tissue and makes breathing difficult. Asbestosis is a very serious and life-threatening disease. Fortunately, most people who are only exposed to moderate levels of asbestos are not likely to develop these serious diseases.
How to Protect Against Asbestos
It is difficult to tell when asbestos is in the air. The tiny fibers have no odor or taste, and they do not irritate your eyes or throat or make your skin itch. If you know or suspect there is asbestos in your home or workplace, leave the material alone. Exposure to asbestos from building materials is minimal if they are in good condition and not disturbed. Fibers are unlikely to become airborne unless materials are cut, ripped or sanded. If you need to remodel, remove or clean up asbestos, be sure to hire trained professionals.
If you suspect asbestos:
- Leave the material alone if in good condition
- Periodically inspect material with suspected asbestos for damage
- If material is damaged, hire trained professionals for testing and/or repair
Page last updated: November 2, 2023