Asbestos fibers are widely dispersed in the environment as a result of human use, but research shows that background levels in the air are extremely low—about 0.0001 fibers/cc. Asbestos is also present in the environment naturally, primarily in underground rock. However, because the rock is too deep to be distributed easily (in most regions), asbestos fibers are not released into the air. When it comes to asbestos that was used extensively in the construction, shipbuilding, and automotive industries, among others, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) says if asbestos isn’t cut, drilled, or sanded it is less likely that fibers will be released into the air.
With so little asbestos in the air and few ways for it to break free, how could someone who hasn’t worked with asbestos become exposed to it? The ATSDR lists several scenarios in which second hand exposure could occur:
- From a worker’s skin, hair, and clothing (most cases seen in women are from exposure to a spouse who worked with asbestos, the worker’s children are at risk as well)
- In areas surrounding a mining operation (which could affect persons living in mining communities)
- In areas in the world where natural weathering, landscaping, construction, or other human activity (such as gardening and outdoor recreation) results in disturbance of asbestos-bearing rock (in some areas such as parts of California, New Jersey, and Virginia, asbestos rock is close enough to the surface that construction and other human activities can disturb it, high concentrations of asbestos can be released into the air)
- In homes and buildings where renovations or demolitions disturb asbestos-containing building materials (if you live or work in a building where asbestos has been disturbed, second hand exposure is possible)
The first two scenarios were very common until the 1970s, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to regulate the industrial uses of asbestos and the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) developed workplace exposure standards. Bear in mind that the time between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually between 20 and 50 years. Because of the long latency period, many cases of second hand asbestos exposure have yet to be diagnosed. The last two scenarios are more common because though asbestos is strictly regulated in the U.S., it has not been eradicated.
What to do if you think you have been exposed to asbestos
If any of the scenarios sound familiar, you may have been exposed to asbestos. Though not all second hand exposure leads to mesothelioma, it is possible, so see your doctor whether you have symptoms or not. Are you experiencing shortness of breath? Chest pain? Unexplained weight loss? Swelling and pain in the abdomen? If so, these are classic symptoms of mesothelioma. It is imperative that you see your doctor immediately.
"Asbestos Toxicity: Who Is at Risk of Exposure to Asbestos?" Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.
"Mesothelioma: Symptoms and Causes." WebMD. WebMD, 2014. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
Papadakis, Maxine A., Stephen J. McPhee, and Michael W. Rabow. 2015 Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment. New York: McGraw-Hill Education/Medical, 2015. Print.