Asbestos exposure at a job site is a major health problem. Your chance of getting an asbestos-related disease depends on certain conditions called risk factors. The first risk factor is how much asbestos was in the air you breathed, or the “concentration.” The second risk factor is the cumulative length of all exposures or “duration.” The asbestos disease risk factors of concentration and duration establish a person’s “dose”, which is a combination of concentration and duration.
Asbestos diseases follow a “dose-response” relationship curve. This means that the more asbestos you inhale (dose), the greater your risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease.
Generally, your risk of getting sick increases with each dose. For example, if a person worked around asbestos for 5 years and someone else worked in the same job for 15 years and had an equal concentration of exposure, the person with 15 years of asbestos exposure has a higher cumulative dose and therefore higher risk. However, either, neither or both may become ill from that exposure depending on a given person’s own susceptibility to asbestos. Cigarette smoking is one factor that increases susceptibility to asbestos disease.
Latency Period for Asbestos Disease
If you do develop an asbestos-related disease, you will probably not show any symptoms until many years after you have been first exposed. The time from first exposure to the discovery of illness (symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, and chronic fatigue) is called the latency period.
The shortest latency period for asbestosis is 5 to 10 years, although often it takes 40 or more years from first exposure before the disease is diagnosed. There is no maximum latency or time when the risk of developing asbestos-related disease disappears because the asbestos fibers that can cause disease remain trapped in the lungs for life. Also, there is no “safe” level of exposure to asbestos; even minimal levels may cause asbestos disease.
Occupations Posing Asbestos Dangers
Workers in the building, construction, shipbuilding, railroad, and automotive industries who have been exposed to asbestos are at particularly high risk for developing asbestos diseases such as asbestosis, asbestos pleural disease, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Any exposure to asbestos increases a person’s chance of contracting mesothelioma.
Even family members of workers exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases due to contact with asbestos dust brought into the home on the workers’ shoes, clothing, skin, or hair. This phenomenon has been studied extensively by Irving J. Selikoff, M.D. of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who reported increased disease levels among families of asbestos factory workers in the 1970s.
Sadly, potential exposure to asbestos does not end at the workplace or the worker’s home. It also occurs in schools, homes, and public buildings when asbestos products have fallen into disrepair or become damaged. For example, asbestos insulation around pipes may deteriorate, allowing deadly dust to enter the air. Asbestos in ceiling tiles and numerous other building materials may become damaged when disturbed or repaired.
Asbestos has been a part of many consumer products, exposing consumers and repairmen to asbestos hazards. See Asbestos Consumer Products for more details.