Resources for Patients and their Families

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos Exposure

Many American workers, across a variety of industries, were exposed to asbestos on the job. As a result, they are now at risk to develop mesothelioma.

In this section, learn about the history of asbestos use, about the products that contained asbestos and about the companies that manufactured them. Find out which occupations and trades are at higher risk for asbestos exposure. Learn which job sites across the United States were contaminated with asbestos containing materials and about the risks associated with handling asbestos.

What is Asbestos?

Long considered a miracle material, asbestos boasts excellent fire- and heat- resistant properties. This naturally-occurring mineral, now known to be a human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), has a history that dates back to ancient Greece. Asbestos was used as a building material, even as far back as during the Roman Empire. Asbestos was a component of fabric that would be used in clothing and a variety of other textiles.

During the Industrial Revolution, asbestos use grew in factories and other heavy industries throughout the United States. Asbestos was used not only in factories, but also in oil refineries, chemical plants, on railroad cars, and in shipyards. Asbestos materials were used to insulate pipes and boilers in steam locomotives, to line tanks and ovens in refineries, and could be found literally everywhere aboard the nation’s ships, from engine rooms to galleys. As the twentieth century progressed, more uses for asbestos were found. It was used in the brakes and clutches of automobiles, insulated America’s new skyscrapers, and was used extensively in the construction industry, where it was used in asbestos products like joint compounds, cements, roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, siding, stucco, plaster, and much more. Those workers at risk included any that worked in an asbestos-heavy industry or frequently handled asbestos products.

By the middle of the twentieth century, it became apparent that asbestos was causing health problems. Asbestos exposure is now known to cause mesothelioma. This asbestos-related cancer can occur when asbestos is inhaled and the microscopic fibers become lodged within the outer lung tissue layer known as the mesothelium. This thin layer of cells protects and lubricates the chest cavity. Asbestos causes a sustained inflammation of these cells resulting in harmful scar tissue forming on the surface. This scar tissue lays the foundation for cancerous cells to develop.

Despite knowledge of the health risks posed by asbestos, historical records indicate that many companies who used asbestos in their facilities knew that the material was dangerous, yet continued to allow its use. Over time, as stories of sick employees became commonplace, the American government began to consider imposing laws about regulating the use of asbestos.

Resources for Asbestos Cancer Patients and Their Families

Asbestos Exposure in the United States

Exposure usually occurred at major construction jobsites, in shipyards, aboard navy vessels, and during construction or renovation of commercial buildings. People working in the vicinity of boilers and insulated piping often are at risk. In addition, teachers, students, and other staff members who work in older school buildings may be at risk of exposure to asbestos products, such as ceiling or floor tiles. Equally at risk are families of these workers, as asbestos often was carried home on clothing.

If you worked at a jobsite where asbestos or asbestos containing products were used, you may be at risk to develop mesothelioma.

Different Types of Asbestos Exposure

Military Exposure

Asbestos was used across all branches of the military for many years. Navy veterans were exposed to high levels of asbestos while serving on ships (aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, battleships, warships, etc.) in the naval fleet as well as in naval shipyards across the country. Army veterans were exposed to asbestos in buildings on military installations and while working on military vehicles. Air Force veterans were exposed while working with military aircraft. Marine Corps veterans that spent time at sea aboard Navy ships were exposed to asbestos. All veterans exposed to asbestos have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma.

Commercial and Industrial Exposure

Many workers and maintenance contractors at industrial and commercial job sites were subjected to dangerous levels of asbestos on the job. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer. The types of jobsites where asbestos exposure occurred include oil refineries, power plants, steel mills and chemical plants to name a few. They all have “high heat” environments where the use of fire and heat resistant materials was required, be it in the construction of the plants or machinery or in the protective clothing that workers were required to wear in designated areas (i.e. fire-proof gloves and aprons). Today, even though the use of asbestos has been banned in the United States, many existing industrial and commercial structures may still contain a certain level of asbestos. It is important that appropriate safety precautions be taken, where necessary, to prevent harmful exposure and to mitigate the risk of developing mesothelioma.

Commercial Product Exposure

Do-it-yourself home renovation enthusiasts, as well as those who worked in the construction trade, may have been exposed to asbestos while working with popular building and construction products. Many of these products were made with asbestos through the late 1970’s as the projects they were to be used in required that they be heat and fire resistant. They included insulation, roofing material, siding, joint compound, ceiling tiles, flooring and more. Unfortunately when any of these products were cut, sawed filed, or sanded, asbestos fibers were released into the air. In the majority of cases, those working with the products did not use appropriate safety precautions because asbestos companies withheld information about the health hazards of asbestos for many years. Today, as a result, construction workers and do-it-yourselfers are at risk for developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.

Second Hand Exposure

Direct, on-the-job asbestos exposure did not affect American workers alone. Their family members were also at risk of developing an asbestos-related disease as a result of second hand asbestos exposure. This type of exposure occurred when workers brought asbestos fibers home on their hair, clothing or shoes at the end of the work day. Those responsible for laundering their work clothes, day in and day out, were most commonly affected, but even small children who spent time with their parent before they had a chance to “clean up” from work were unknowingly placed at risk of developing an asbestos-related illness.

Talc Exposure

Talc is a naturally occurring silicate mineral most commonly used in cosmetics and toiletries. Talc mineral on its own is believed to be safe, but talc deposits are often found near and among asbestos deposits. Due to this, some talc deposits are contaminated with asbestos fibers causing talc miners to be unknowingly exposed to asbestos. While talc miners are at the greatest risk of asbestos exposure, some consumer products, namely baby powder and, more recently, children’s art supplies, have been found to contain asbestos and cause regular users, mostly women, to be exposed to asbestos. Today, products using talc are tested for asbestos, but that was not always the case. Because mesothelioma has a long latency period, miners and consumers are being diagnosed with mesothelioma decades later from their job and use of the asbestos-containing talc products.

Unions Protect Workers from Asbestos Exposure

Throughout the United States and across the world, hundreds of labor and trade unions are in place to protect individuals who work in myriad industries, from steel workers to plumbers, to electricians. Unions have for a long time played a significant role in protecting workers right when it comes to asbestos exposure on the job. Unions have organized witnesses for court cases, have stepped forward to financially aid widows and children of those diagnosed with mesothelioma, and have fought against inadequate trust funds proposed by mega-companies to compensate asbestos victims.

Compensation for Workers Exposed to Asbestos

If you have developed health problems associated with asbestos exposure, you may be entitled to compensation. Each state has its own deadlines, called statutes of limitations, which allow victims of asbestos exposure to file lawsuits.

Learn About Your Legal Rights

Don't wait until it is too late to protect your rights! Request a Free Evaluation now if you or someone you love has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease.


Vianna, Nicholas J. Adele Polan K. Non-Occupational Exposure to Asbestos and Malignant Mesothelioma in Females. The Lancet. 1978. Vol. 311 (8073): 1061-1063

Hodgson, John T. Darnton, Andrew. The quantitative reisk of mesothelioma and lung cancer in relation to asbestos exposure. The Annals of Occupational Hygiene. 2000. Vol. 44(8): 565-601.

Mowe, Gunnar. Gylseth, Bjorn. Hartveit, Flora. Skaug, Vidar. Occupational asbestos exposure, lung-fiber concentration, and latency time in malignant mesothelioma. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Environmental Health. 1984 Vol. 10: 293-298.

Aderson, Henry A. Lillis, Ruth. Daum, Susan M. Fischbein, Alf S. Selikoff, Irving J. Household-Contact Asbestos Neoplastic Risk. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1976. Vol. 271: 311-323.

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