Does Asbestos Exposure Always Cause Cancer?

The short answer to this question is ‘no.’  Not every individual who is exposed to asbestos will contract cancer.

One study found that roughly 60% of all blue-collar workers have been exposed to asbestos at some point in time at their workplaces (although the vast majority of this exposure was at low levels).  In 2016, blue-collar employment represented 13.6% of the American workforce, or nearly 45 million workers.  If mesothelioma affected all 60% of those blue-collar workers exposed to asbestos, there would be around 27 million cases of mesothelioma in the United States.  Given that most estimates suggest around 3,000 new mesothelioma diagnoses per year, the vast majority of exposed workers are not diagnosed with the disease.

Scientific Research Linking Asbestos to Cancer

However, there is enough medical research from experts around the world to confidently state that asbestos exposure substantially increases the risk of contracting lung cancer.  The above study found an “excess risk” of lung cancer and its subtypes at relatively low levels of lifetime exposure, and this risk increases exponentially the more one is exposed to asbestos, or the more asbestos one is exposed to.  It is the only risk factor established to be causally linked to mesothelioma, a particularly aggressive and deadly form of lung cancer.

As a result of the undeniable link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).  The material’s use has been effectively banned in most developed nations.

Occupational Exposure to Asbestos

The highest rates of mesothelioma are reported among workers in industries or positions exposing them to large amounts of asbestos.  Some of the occupations with the highest risk of exposure to asbestos include:

  • Asbestos mining
  • Construction workers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Firefighters
  • Factory workers
  • Textile mill workers
  • Industrial workers
  • Power plant workers

Others at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

In addition to occupational exposure, there are several other vectors by which one can be exposed to asbestos.  Research has shown elevated risk of cancer among even those who do not work directly with asbestos.  Possible indirect exposure can occur through:

  • Para-occupational exposure: exposure to asbestos due to proximity with someone who is exposed through their workplace. This is likely due to asbestos fibers adhering to the worker’s clothing and subsequently being brought into the home, exposing other household members to the deadly substance.
  • Environmental exposure from industrial operations, for example living near a factory that produces asbestos insulation.
  • Exposure to commercial asbestos-containing products, for example having asbestos insulation in your home or workplace.
  • Exposure to naturally occurring asbestos.