"Asbestos Exposure: Questions and Answers"
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Asbestos Exposure: Questions and Answers
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1. What is asbestos?
2. How is asbestos used?
"Asbestos" is the name given to a group of minerals that occur
naturally as masses of strong, flexible fibers that can be
separated into thin threads and woven. These fibers are not
affected by heat or chemicals and do not conduct electricity. For
these reasons, asbestos has been widely used in many industries.
Four types of asbestos have been used commercially:
Chrysotile asbestos, with its curly fibers, is in the serpentine
- Chrysotile, or white asbestos, which accounts for about 99
percent of the asbestos currently used in the United States;
- Crocidolite, or blue asbestos;
- Amosite, which has brown fibers; and
- Anthophyllite, which has gray fibers.
family of minerals. The other types of asbestos, which all have
rod-like fibers, are known as amphiboles.
Asbestos fiber masses tend to break easily into a dust composed of
tiny particles that can float in the air and stick to clothes. The
fibers may be easily inhaled or swallowed and can cause serious
3. What are the health hazards of exposure to asbestos?
Asbestos has been mined and used commercially in North America
since the late 1800s, but its use increased greatly during World
War II. Since then, it has been used in many industries. For
example, the building and construction industry uses it for
strengthening cement and plastics as well as for insulation,
fireproofing, and sound absorption. The shipbuilding industry has
used asbestos to insulate boilers, steampipes, and hot water
pipes. The automotive industry uses asbestos in vehicle brakeshoes
and clutch pads. More than 5,000 products contain or have
contained asbestos. Some of them are listed below:
In the late 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching compounds and gas
fireplaces because these products released excessive amounts of
asbestos fibers into the environment. Additionally, asbestos was
voluntarily withdrawn by manufacturers of electric hair dryers. In
1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all
new uses of asbestos; uses established prior to 1989 are still
allowed. The EPA has established regulations that require school
systems to inspect for damaged asbestos and to eliminate or reduce
the exposure by removing the asbestos or by covering it up.
- Asbestos cement sheet and pipe products used for water supply
and sewage piping, roofing and siding, casings for electrical
wires, fire protection material, electrical switchboards and
components, and residential and industrial building
- Friction products, such as clutch facings, brake linings for
automobiles, gaskets, and industrial friction materials;
- Products containing asbestos paper, such as table pads and
heat-protective mats, heat and electrical wire insulation,
industrial filters for beverages, and underlying material for
- Asbestos textile products, such as packing components,
roofing materials, and heat- and fire-resistant fabrics
(including blankets and curtains); and
- Other products, including ceiling and floor tile; gaskets and
packings; paints, coatings, and adhesives; caulking and
patching tape; artificial ashes and embers for use in
gas-fired fireplaces; and plastics.
These and other regulatory actions, coupled with widespread public
concern about the hazards of asbestos, have resulted in a
significant annual decline in U.S. use of asbestos: Domestic
consumption of asbestos amounted to about 719,000 metric tons in
1973, but it had dropped to about 15,000 metric tons by 1999.
Asbestos is currently used most frequently in gaskets and in
roofing and friction products.
Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of several serious
4. Who is at risk?
- Asbestosis--a chronic lung ailment that can produce shortness
of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage;
- Lung cancer;
- Mesothelioma--a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes
that line the chest and abdomen; and
- Other cancers, such as those of the larynx, oropharynx,
gastrointestinal tract, and kidney.
5. How great is the risk?
Nearly everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their
life. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure.
People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are
exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they
work directly with the material or through substantial
Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have been
exposed to asbestos. Health hazards from asbestos dust have been
recognized in workers exposed in shipbuilding trades, asbestos
mining and milling, manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other
asbestos products, insulation work in the construction and
building trades, brake repair, and a variety of other trades.
Demolition workers, drywall removers, and firefighters also may be
exposed to asbestos dust. As a result of Government regulations
and improved work practices, today's workers (those without
previous exposure) are likely to face smaller risks than did those
exposed in the past.
Although it is known that the risk to workers increases with
heavier exposure and longer exposure time, investigators have
found asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief
exposures. Generally, workers who develop asbestos-related
diseases show no signs of illness for a long time after their
first exposure. It can take from 10 to 40 years for symptoms of an
asbestos-related condition to appear.
There is some evidence that family members of workers heavily
exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing
mesothelioma. This risk is thought to result from exposure to
asbestos dust brought into the home on the shoes, clothing, skin,
and hair of workers. This type of exposure is called
paraoccupational exposure. To decrease these exposures, asbestos
workers are usually required to shower and change their clothing
before leaving the workplace.
6. How does smoking affect risk?
Not all workers exposed to asbestos will develop diseases related
to their exposure. In fact, many will experience no ill effects.
Asbestos that is bonded into finished products such as walls,
tiles, and pipes poses no risk to health as long as it is not
damaged or disturbed (for example, by sawing or drilling) in such
a way as to release fibers into the air. When asbestos particles
are set free and inhaled, however, exposed individuals are at risk
of developing an asbestos-related disease. Once these fibers work
their way into body tissues, they may stay there indefinitely.
The risk of developing asbestos-related diseases varies with the
type of industry in which the exposure occurred and with the
extent of the exposure. In addition, different types of asbestos
fibers may be associated with different health risks. For example,
results of several studies suggest that amphibole forms of
asbestos are more likely than chrysotile to cause lung cancer,
asbestosis, and, in particular, mesothelioma. Even so, no fiber
type can be considered harmless, and proper safety precautions
should always be taken by people working with asbestos.
7. Who needs to be examined?
Many studies have shown that the combination of smoking and
asbestos exposure is particularly hazardous. Smokers who are also
exposed to asbestos have a greatly
increased risk of lung cancer. However, smoking combined with
asbestos exposure does not appear to increase the risk of
There is evidence that quitting smoking will reduce the risk of
lung cancer among asbestos-exposed workers. People who were
exposed to asbestos on the job at any time during their life or
who suspect they may have been exposed should not smoke. If they smoke,
they should stop.
8. How can workers protect themselves?
Individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been
exposed) to asbestos dust on the job or at home via a family
contact should inform their physician of their exposure history
and any symptoms. Asbestos fibers can be measured in urine, feces,
mucus, or material rinsed out of the lungs. A thorough physical
examination, including a chest x-ray and lung function tests, may
be recommended. It is important to note that chest x-rays cannot
detect asbestos fibers in the lungs, but they can help identify
any lung changes resulting from asbestos exposure. Interpretation
of the chest x-ray may require the help of a specialist who is
experienced in reading x-rays for asbestos-related diseases. Other
tests also may be necessary.
As noted earlier, the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may
not become apparent for many decades after exposure. If any of the
following symptoms develop, a physical examination should be
scheduled without delay:
- Shortness of breath;
- A cough or a change in cough pattern;
- Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs;
- Pain in the chest or abdomen;
- Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness; and/or
- Significant weight loss.
Internet Web site: Http: //www.osha.gov/as/opa/worker/index.html
Employers are required to follow regulations dealing with asbestos
exposure on the job that have been issued by the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Federal agency
responsible for health and safety regulations in the workplace.
Regulations related to mine safety are enforced by the Mine Safety
and Health Administration (MSHA). Workers should use all
protective equipment provided by their employers and follow
recommended work practices and safety procedures. For example,
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health
(NIOSH)-approved respirators that fit properly should be worn by
workers involved in building demolition or asbestos removal.
Workers who are concerned about asbestos exposure in the workplace
should discuss the situation with other employees, their union,
and their employers. If necessary, OSHA can provide more
information or make an inspection. Regional offices of OSHA are
listed in the "United States Government" section of telephone
directories' blue pages (under "Department of Labor"). Regional
offices can also be located at
Http: //www.osha-slc.gov/html/RAmap.html on the Internet, or by
contacting OSHA's national office at:
Organization: Office of Public Affairs
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Department of Labor
Address: Room 3647
200 Constitution Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20210
Organization: Office of Information and Public Affairs
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
Address: Room 627
4015 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22203
Internet Web site: Http: //www.msha.gov
9. Will the Government provide examinations and treatment for
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
is another Federal agency that is concerned with asbestos exposure
in the workplace. The Institute conducts asbestos-related
research, evaluates work sites for possible health hazards, and
makes safety recommendations. In addition, NIOSH distributes
publications on the health effects of asbestos exposure and can
suggest additional sources of information. NIOSH can be contacted
Organization: Office of Information
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Address: Robert A. Taft Laboratories
4676 Columbia Parkway
Cincinnati, OH 45226-1998
Telephone: 1-800-356-4674 (1-800-35-NIOSH)
Internet Web site: Http: //www.cdc.gov/niosh
asbestos-related conditions? What about insurance coverage?
10. Is there a danger of nonoccupational exposure from products
Medical services related to asbestos exposure are available
through the Government for certain groups of eligible individuals.
In general, individuals must pay for their own medical services
unless they are covered by private or Government health insurance.
Some people with symptoms of asbestos-related illness may be
eligible for Medicare coverage. Information about benefits is
available from the Medicare office serving each state. For the
telephone number of the nearest office, call toll-free
1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE) or visit
Http: //www.medicare.gov on the Internet.
People with asbestos-related diseases also may qualify for
financial help, including medical payments, under state workers'
compensation laws. Because eligibility requirements vary from
state to state, workers should contact the workers' compensation
program in their state. Contact information for the workers'
compensation program in each state may be found in the blue pages
of a local telephone directory or at
on the Internet.
If exposure occurred during employment with a Federal agency
(military or civilian), medical expenses and other compensation
may be covered by the Federal Employees' Compensation Program.
Workers who are or were employed in a shipyard by a private
employer may be covered under the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers'
Compensation Act. Information about eligibility and how to file a
claim is available from:
Workers also may wish to contact their international union for
information on other sources of medical help and insurance
Organization: Office of Worker's Compensation Programs
U.S. Department of Labor
Address: Room S-3009
200 Constitution Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20210
Internet Web site: Http: //www.dol.gov/dol/esa/public/owcp_org.htm
Eligible veterans and their dependents may receive health care at
a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. Treatment
for service-connected and nonservice-connected conditions is
provided. If the VA cannot provide the necessary medical care,
they will arrange for enrolled veterans to receive care in their
community. Information about eligibility and benefits is available
from the VA Health Benefits Service Center at 1-877-822-8387
(1-877-822-VETS) or on the VA Web site at
Http: //www.va.gov/vbs/health on the Internet.
contaminated with asbestos particles?
11. What other organizations offer information related to asbestos
Asbestos is so widely used that the entire population has been
exposed to some degree. Air, drinking water, and a variety of
consumer products all may contain small amounts of asbestos. In
addition, asbestos fibers are released into the environment from
natural deposits in the earth and as a result of wear and
deterioration of asbestos products. Disease is unlikely to result
from a single, high-level exposure, or from a short period of
exposure to lower levels of asbestos.
This fact sheet was reviewed on 11/08/01
The organizations listed below can provide more information about
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is
responsible for preventing exposure, adverse human health effects,
and diminished quality of life associated with exposure to
hazardous substances from waste sites, unplanned releases, and
other sources of pollution present in the environment. The ATSDR
provides information about asbestos and where to find occupational
and environmental health clinics. The ATSDR Information Center can
be reached at:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the
general public's exposure to asbestos in buildings, drinking
water, and the environment. The EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act
(TSCA) Assistance Information Service, or TSCA Hotline, can answer
questions about toxic substances, including asbestos. Printed
material is available on a number of topics, particularly on
controlling asbestos exposure in schools and other buildings.
Questions may be directed to:
Organization: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
Address: Mailstop E-29
1600 Clifton Road, NE.
Atlanta, GA 30333
Internet Web site: Http: //www.atsdr.cdc.gov
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is responsible for
the regulation of asbestos in consumer products. The CPSC
maintains a toll-free information line on the potential hazards of
commercial products; the telephone number is 1-800-638-2772. In
addition, CPSC provides information about laboratories for
asbestos testing, guidelines for repairing and removing asbestos,
and general information about asbestos in the home. Publications
are available from:
Organization: TSCA Assistance Information Service
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Address: Mailcode 7408
401 M Street, SW.
Washington, DC 20460
Internet Web site: Http: //www.epa.gov/asbestos/index.htm
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is concerned with asbestos
contamination of foods, drugs, and cosmetics and will answer
questions on these topics. The address is:
Organization: Office of Information and Public Affairs
Consumer Product Safety Commission
Address: 4330 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814-4408
TTY (for deaf or hard
of hearing callers): 1-800-638-8270
Internet Web site: Http: //www.cpsc.gov
Information about asbestos is also available from the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services Web site at
Http: //www.hhs.gov/news/press/2001pres/20010916a.html on the
Internet. In addition, people can contact their local community or
state health or environmental quality department with questions or
concerns about asbestos.
Organization: Office of Consumer Affairs
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Address: HFE-88, Room 16-85
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857
Telephone: 1-888-463-6332 (1-888-INFO-FDA)
Internet Web site: Http: //www.fda.gov/oca/oca.htm
Materials about cancer and how to quit smoking are available by
calling the Cancer Information Service (CIS) (see below).
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This page was last modified on Sonntag, 02-Nov-2003 16:03:44 CET