Asbestos Exposure Risks
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed December 03, 2018
Most Americans will be exposed to asbestos at least one time during their lives. However, because the exposure is usually limited, the vast majority of people won't become ill. Those who become sick typically have been subjected to long-term asbestos exposure. Risks of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases are much higher for those who handle asbestos in the workplace or during military service. Asbestos workers' family members and roommates also may be at risk for asbestos-related illnesses as well.
How Much Asbestos Exposure is Harmful?
Most asbestos-related illnesses take many years to develop. In the typical case, 20 to 50 years may have passed since the patient was originally exposed to asbestos. But while those who get ill from the substance often were exposed for a long period of time, that is not always the case. A man from Welwyn, England by the name of Roger Beale succumbed to mesothelioma after just two to three days of cutting pieces of asbestos with a circular saw (without proper ventilation). He died 46 years after the exposure occurred.
Asbestos Exposure: Short-Term Effects
If you have reason to believe (or know for a fact) that you were exposed to a significant amount of asbestos, you probably won't suffer any short-term effects. As noted above, mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related diseases generally appear several decades after exposure. However, knowing that you have been exposed will give you a head-start in monitoring your health and discovering any asbestos-related illnesses at the early stage.
Asbestos Exposure Risks in the Workplace
Over the years, millions of American workers have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Workers may inhale or inadvertently swallow asbestos particles. This can result in asbestos fibers becoming trapped in the lungs and other organs. When this happens, an individual is at risk for developing an asbestos-related illness such as mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that invades the linings of the lungs and other organs.
Asbestos-related illnesses have been reported in patients who've worked in the following industries:
- Asbestos mining and milling
- Automobile repair
- Building demolition
- Construction and building trades
- Drywall removal
- Manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other asbestos products
- Shipbuilding trades
- Pipe fitting
Asbestos Exposure Risks in the Military
Men and women who have served in the military may also be at risk for asbestos-related illnesses. During World War II, U.S. military ships were built with materials that contained asbestos. As a result, many World War II veterans were exposed to the material. In addition, asbestos exposure has been reported in veterans who served in the following conflicts:
- Korean War
- Vietnam War
- Gulf War
- Iraq War
- Afghanistan War
For example, during the Iraq War, many military personnel were stationed in old housing and buildings that had been constructed with asbestos. During bombings and other acts of war, military personnel may have been exposed to asbestos. As a result, military personnel may be at risk for developing mesothelioma and other illnesses.
In addition, military veterans who've been involved in building and construction, pipefitting, welding, automotive repair, building demolition, drywall removal, firefighting, asbestos mining and milling, and other industries where asbestos-containing products were used may have an increased risk for asbestos-related conditions as well.
Exposure Risks for Family Members and Roommates
Family members and roommates of workers exposed to asbestos may also have a heightened asbestos exposure risk and may develop asbestos-related illnesses. When an asbestos worker comes home, the worker's clothes and shoes may be contaminated with asbestos dust. In addition, asbestos particles may have latched onto the worker's skin and hair. As a result, the worker's family members and roommates may breathe in the asbestos dust. This exposure is known as para-occupational exposure. To decrease the risk of asbestos exposure, workers who are directly or indirectly exposed to asbestos are usually required to shower and change their clothing and shoes before leaving the workplace.
Exposure to Asbestos and Worker Protections
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal government agency that's responsible for protecting workers from asbestos-related illnesses in the workplace. The OSHA has developed workplace safety standards for employees involved in the shipyard and construction industries. The agency has also promulgated workplace protections for other kinds of employees who are involved with asbestos-related work, such as automotive repair and manufacturing.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Worker Protection Rule also protects state and local government workers who meet certain requirements. In order to qualify for protection under this rule, state and local government workers must not be covered by OSHA Asbestos Standards or by a state OSHA plan. The Worker Protection Rule protects workers by regulating workplace practices, protective tools and equipment, medical exams, air monitoring and reporting, and record keeping.
In addition, many state and local governments provide special protections for employees whose work involves asbestos. In many cases, these protections are greater than the federal government's safeguards. See FindLaw's Asbestos Exposure Determining Fault and Liability to learn more about your legal options.
Talk to a Lawyer About Asbestos Exposure Risks and Your Legal Options
Asbestos was once used in virtually all buildings and in many common consumer products, although the asbestos exposure risk is much lower in such casual proximity. But if you served a tour of duty in the Armed Forces, were exposed to high levels of asbestos as part of your job, or had regular contact with someone in a high-risk group, you should be aware of the heightened risks for illness. Contact a skilled asbestos and mesothelioma lawyer to find out if you have a legal claim for an asbestos-related illness.
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