The only cause discovered for mesothelioma is exposure to the material known as asbestos. People can be exposed in numerous ways, such as working directly with materials containing asbestos to washing clothes that have collected asbestos fibers.  It has been documented that individuals have become sick from even a small amount of exposure.

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Exposure Limits and Levels

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set what it calls a “Permissible Exposure Limit” (PEL) for asbestos, and employers in the United States have to ensure their employees are not exposed to levels beyond that limit. The limit is 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average, with an excursion limit of 1.0 fibers per cubic centimeter over a 30-minute period.

It is important to note that this is a guideline for industries, and it does not mean that levels of asbestos exposure below the PEL are safe. In fact, no exposure to asbestos is safe. Anytime asbestos is disturbed, the hazardous fibers fly into the air. The material is a carcinogen, so the highest precautions always need to be taken when encountering asbestos.

Exposure and Symptom Timeline

The root problem leading to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases occurs relatively quickly after exposure. When someone swallows or inhales asbestos fibers, the fibers become trapped inside of soft tissue and in a lining protecting internal organs, called the mesothelium. Throughout time, the trapped fibers cause irritation and scarring, which leads to a growth of mesothelioma tumors.

The dangerous initial effects of exposure happen quickly, but symptoms of mesothelioma can take many years. The time when someone first notices symptoms can be 10 years or even 50 years after exposure. Each person’s symptom timeframe will be different, depending on the type of asbestos involved, the nature and duration of exposure, and personal factors, like smoking and genetics.

Commercial Products Containing Asbestos

There are several different kinds of asbestos, and some are more dangerous than others. The six types of asbestos include

Chrysotile – The most common type of asbestos, made up of long, curly fibers. The fibers can be woven into numerous products, which is why this type of asbestos accounts for about 90 percent of asbestos use in the United States. Chrysotile asbestos was widely used in the following commercial products:

    • Flooring materials
    • Wall insulation
    • Ceiling materials
    • Roofing
    • Appliance insulation
    • Brake lines

Amosite – The second-most common type of asbestos, known for its brown color. Amosite asbestos was commonly used in the construction industry in the following commercial products:

  • Cement sheets
  • Pipe insulation
  • Ceiling tiles

Tremolite – A type of asbestos that is rarely found on its own but rather inside of vermiculite. Vermiculite is a flaky mineral compound used in the following commercial products:

  • Attic insulation
  • Wall insulation
  • Talcum products

Crocidolite – A type of asbestos known for its blue color and made up of long, straight fibers. It is more brittle than other types of asbestos, so it has been used less frequently, accounting for about 4 percent of U.S. asbestos products. Because it can break so easily, this type of asbestos is highly dangerous. Crocidolite asbestos was used in the following commercial products:

  • Cigarette filters
  • Plastics products
  • Spray-on coatings
  • Pipe insulation

Anthophyllite – A type of asbestos known for its greyish brown color and made up of long, flexible fibers. It is one of the rarest forms of asbestos and was not mined on its own. However, it can be found as a contaminant in the following commercial products:

    • Flooring materials
    • Talcum products

Actinolite – Another extremely rare type of asbestos known for its green color. It can also be colorless. It was not used by itself in products but can be found as a contaminate in the following commercial products:

      • Drywall
      • Talcum products

Occupations of High Risk

People who work around asbestos were and still are at extremely high risk of exposure. Some of high-risk occupations in terms of asbestos exposure include:

      • Construction workers
      • Contractors
      • Engineers
      • Railroad workers
      • Shipyard workers
      • Plant and factory workers
      • Miners
      • Mechanics
      • Firefighters

Because of the type of products these workers encounter and use every day, they are more likely to be exposed to asbestos. For instance, construction workers and contractors frequently encountered — and still do encounter — asbestos insulation, ceiling tiles, and flooring when working inside homes and commercial buildings. Disturbance of asbestos during the construction process can easily cause disbursement of fibers.

Appropriate precautions must always be taken in these types of professions to make sure workers are safe and are using the best practices when they discover asbestos on a job site.

Second-Hand Exposure

Asbestos fibers are so hazardous that even second-hand exposure can cause someone to develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Children can be harmed by fibers on their parents’ tools or in their parents’ hair when they come home from work. Spouses can become ill from washing clothes or fabrics that contain asbestos fibers.

Shaking out clothing or fabrics, brushing hair, or something as simple as a hug can release asbestos fibers that a loved one inhales or ingests. These types of second-hand exposure can then lead to symptoms of mesothelioma years later.

Disaster-Related Exposure

People who are involved in or respond to disaster events can be at risk of asbestos exposure, as well. For example, asbestos was used in constructing the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, countless amounts of asbestos fibers were released into the air. Survivors, firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and other volunteer rescuers were all exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos at Ground Zero. Many have started to develop cancer symptoms, and some have already died from cancer.

Exposure can also occur during a natural disaster, like an earthquake or tornado. Any event that results in widespread disruption of asbestos will send fibers into the air and potentially cause harm to people in the community.

Environmental Exposure

Asbestos is a mined material, which means it occurs naturally in the environment. Some states in the U.S. are known for higher amounts of asbestos, and environmental conditions in those states can lead to fiber disturbances. Nevada, for example, has high levels of natural asbestos, and the state’s dry climate contributes to airborne fibers and particles.

States with particularly high levels of asbestos include:

    • Alaska
    • Arizona
    • California
    • Vermont
    • Virginia
    • Washington


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