Until the late 1970s, asbestos was widely used in many industries in the United States. During that time, workplace rules to ensure workers' safety around asbestos weren't required by law.
Asbestos was used in or with many products. Examples include steam pipes, boilers, furnaces, and furnace ducts; wallboard; floor and ceiling tiles; wood-burning stoves and gas fireplaces; car brakes, clutches, and gaskets; railroad engines; roofing and shingles; and wall-patching materials and paints.
Asbestos also was used in many other products, such as fireproof gloves, ironing board covers, cooking pot handles, and hairdryers.
Anyone employed for a prolonged period in mining, milling, making, or installing asbestos products before the late 1970s is at risk for asbestos-related lung diseases. Some examples of these workers include:
- Aircraft and auto mechanics
- Building construction workers
- Shipyard workers
- Boiler operators
- Building engineers
- Railroad workers
In general, the risk is greatest for people who worked with asbestos and were exposed for at least several months to visible dust from asbestos fibers. The risk for asbestos-related lung diseases also depends on:
- How much asbestos you were exposed to.
- How long you were exposed to asbestos, and how often during that time you were in direct contact with it.
- The size, shape, and chemical makeup of the asbestos fibers. Different types of asbestos fibers can affect the lungs differently. For example, chrysotile asbestos (a curly fiber) is less likely to cause mesothelioma than amphibole asbestos (a straight fiber).
- Your personal risks, such as smoking or having an existing lung disease.
Family members of people exposed to asbestos on the job also may be at risk. Family members may have breathed in asbestos fibers that were brought home on workers’ clothes, shoes, and bodies.
People who live in areas that have large deposits of asbestos in the soil also are at risk for asbestos-related lung diseases. However, this risk is limited to areas where the deposits were disturbed and asbestos fibers got into the air.
Asbestos fibers also can be released into the air when older buildings containing asbestos-made products are destroyed. Removing the products, such as during a building renovation, also can release asbestos fibers into the air.
Generally, being around asbestos-made products isn’t a danger, as long as the asbestos is enclosed. This prevents the fibers from getting into the air.
People in the United States are less likely to develop asbestos-related lung diseases today than in the past. This is because the mineral no longer is widely used. Also, where asbestos is still used, rules and standards are now in place to protect workers and others from asbestos exposure.