How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?
Until the 1970’s asbestos was so commonly used in products and construction that anyone living before that time has likely had at lease some asbestos exposure. According to the World Health Organization, over 125 million people worldwide are at risk of asbestos exposure in the workplace. In the United States, approximately 1.3 million construction and general industry workers remain at risk of exposure.
People at greatest risk of asbestos exposure are those working with asbestos-containing materials, or living near locations where asbestos is mined, manufactured into products, or disturbed through building renovation, demolition, or deterioration.
Spouses and families of asbestos workers may also be at risk of secondary exposure by asbestos fibers carried home on clothing, hair, and skin. Although government regulation of asbestos has now greatly curtailed public exposure, anyone with a past history of asbestos exposure may be at risk of developing mesothelioma, given its ability to develop years or even decades, later.
Workers in the following industries, particularly prior to the 1970s, are at the highest risk of developing mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure:
- Aircraft and aerospace trades and manufacturers
- Automotive trades, particularly brake and clutch mechanics
- Chemical, cement, and rubber plants
- Construction, particularly during renovation and demolition of older buildings
- Custodial and building maintenance
- Engineering, electrical, and plumbing trades
- Manufacturing of products containing asbestos
- Mining, especially asbestos and vermiculite
- Oil trades and refineries
- Railroad industry
- Shipbuilding and maritime occupations
- Steel mill manufacturers
- Telephone industry, phone cable manufacturers, linemen, and installers
- Textile factories and industrial garment factories
- Warehousing industry and trades
Fireman, and potentially other first responders, can be exposed to asbestos during building fires and other disaster response situations. Military veterans have higher rates of mesothelioma due to the American armed forces’ extensive use of asbestos in each of the country’s military branches. The U.S. Navy used asbestos extensively on ships, submarines, and shipyards to prevent fires, causing Navy veterans the highest rates of exposure in the military.
The majority of individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure were employed in blue-collar professions and the military.
Though typical exposure occurs by inhaling the fibers, asbestos can also be ingested through drinking water, either due to erosion from natural and waste deposits, or through asbestos-cement water pipes. In the United States, thousands of miles of cement pipes mixed with asbestos carry drinking water to the nation’s cities and towns. When these pipes begin to corrode, asbestos fibers can leach into the water supply. Contaminated water can further expose people when used in humidifiers and other devices that aerosolize water and release it into the air.
Those living near areas with large deposits of naturally occurring asbestos are especially vulnerable to exposure through water supplies, contaminated soil, and airborne asbestos fibers due to disruption of the deposits.