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Written By: Camryn Keeble

Types of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is the only known cause of the rare cancer mesothelioma, but not everyone who develops mesothelioma was exposed to asbestos in the same way. There are different types of asbestos exposure, and they can happen in various aspects of our daily lives.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Types of Asbestos Exposure

  • The most common type of asbestos exposure throughout history is occupational exposure. This occurs when people work jobs involving the installation or repair of asbestos-containing materials or structures.
  • The other types of asbestos exposure are: secondary; legacy; product use; and environmental.
  • Legacy asbestos exposure is a more recent concern as people find old asbestos in homes, offices and school buildings, bringing light to safety hazards for people living, working, or going to school in structures where asbestos exists.
  • Asbestos in cosmetic and health products – namely, products made with talc – has also come into focus. Cancer patients, who used certain products, such as Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder, are now connecting their diagnosis with the use of these products as they may have been contaminated with asbestos.

What Are the Main Types of Asbestos Exposure?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was cherished during the 20th century for its ability to resist fire. Industries used asbestos to protect vulnerable parts of machinery, buildings, automobiles, ships and more. Unfortunately, asbestos can also cause cancer, such as lung cancer and a rare disease called mesothelioma.

There are five main types of exposure to asbestos:

  • Occupational asbestos exposure
  • Legacy asbestos exposure
  • Secondary asbestos exposure (secondhand exposure)
  • Product exposure (exposure through use of talc products)
  • Environmental asbestos exposure

The most common type historically is occupational asbestos exposure or exposure in the workplace. The others are less common but still occur and can lead to mesothelioma or other cancers. Legacy asbestos exposure refers to any exposure to asbestos that was installed during the peak of asbestos use in the 20th century and still remains in homes, offices, automobiles or household appliances.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos in the workplace, also called occupational asbestos exposure, is the most frequent type. People who worked in specific industries and jobs, such as construction and industrial work, routinely installed or repaired asbestos materials in houses, office buildings, plants, refineries, and more. Automobile mechanics, Navy shipbuilders, electricians, machinists, pipefitters, insulation workers and others were also routinely exposed to asbestos.

The majority of people who developed mesothelioma during the 20th century were exposed at their jobs. The Departments of Pathology at Georgetown University and Duke University reviewed 1,445 malignant mesothelioma cases and determined that approximately 90% were due to occupational exposure.

The three occupations accounting for the most mesothelioma cases were:

Of the main types of mesothelioma, occupational asbestos exposure results in pleural mesothelioma 90% of the time. Pleural mesothelioma forms in the lining of the lungs (the pleura) and can spread to the lungs. The life expectancy for people diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma is 1-2 years.

Occupational exposure has become and will continue to be less frequent because fewer industries are using asbestos in new products in the 21st century.

Legacy Asbestos Exposure

Legacy asbestos exposure occurs when people are exposed to old asbestos in homes, office buildings, schools, government landmarks and more. Legacy asbestos refers to asbestos that was installed decades ago when asbestos was a widely accepted part of construction, insulation, electrical work, building automobiles and shipbuilding.

Legacy asbestos exposure can occur through an occupation or just as a resident living in their home or a car owner performing do-it-yourself repair work. Therefore, legacy asbestos exposure is not mutually exclusive from the other types of exposure, namely occupational asbestos exposure.

Legacy asbestos in schools has presented a major safety issue in the last few years. A few school districts in the United States – namely the Philadelphia School District – have had to close schools due to findings of asbestos in the ceiling tiles, walls and other locations.

Legacy asbestos exposure will remain an issue in the United States until all old uses of asbestos have been removed from homes, office buildings, schools and other structures. This process will likely take decades to complete. You’d be surprised by how many locations exist where you could be exposed to asbestos in your town.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary asbestos exposure, also called secondhand asbestos exposure, refers to people who are exposed to the deadly mineral through another person carrying the substance into the home. Secondary exposure usually occurs when a family member or friend comes in contact with someone who has been working with asbestos. Therefore, secondary asbestos exposure is linked to occupational exposure.

Examples of secondary asbestos exposure include:

  • Hugging a family member or friend after they return home from their work shift where they handled asbestos, or were exposed to asbestos materials or asbestos dust
  • Touching a family member’s work clothes (washing clothes, folding clothes, putting shoes away, etc.) that contain asbestos fibers
  • Being inside a car or another tight, enclosed space with a family member or friend who has asbestos on their clothes, on their skin or in their hair

Secondary asbestos exposure is often responsible for women being diagnosed with mesothelioma due to the link between secondary and occupational exposure. Men are more likely to develop mesothelioma as they typically held high-risk asbestos exposure jobs. Stray fibers would cover their work uniforms, skin or hair, and the men in these jobs would often bring asbestos fibers into their homes, unknowingly exposing their parents, siblings, wives and children.

Product Asbestos Exposure: Talc Asbestos Exposure

Exposure through product use is receiving more attention lately as more people file lawsuits against manufacturers of the products. Some products, namely those that use talc as an ingredient, can be contaminated with asbestos. Many people refer to this as talc asbestos exposure.

Talc is a naturally occurring mineral and often is found in the same geographical areas as asbestos. This means any talc can inadvertently be contaminated with asbestos.

Talc is ground into a powder, called talcum powder, and added to cosmetics and healthcare products to keep skin dry and healthy. However, the grinding process can disturb any asbestos present and hide sharp fibers within the powder, an unknown danger to consumers.

A 2020 study by the FDA revealed how frequently asbestos contaminates talc-based cosmetic commodities. Around 23% of the items tested included detectable asbestos. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducted its own test and found asbestos in 15% of talc products. Two products were eyeshadow palettes, and one was a children’s toy makeup kit.

Talc was a primary ingredient of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder for decades, one of the most popular skincare products on the market. Adults and mothers who used Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder on their children – and adults who were exposed as children – have linked the product to their cancer diagnosis. Johnson & Johnson has faced tens of thousands of lawsuits, many from people with mesothelioma and ovarian cancer, alleging that the baby powder was contaminated with asbestos and led to their disease.

Other cosmetic and health products containing talc have been linked to asbestos exposure, such as:

  • Blush
  • Eye shadow
  • Lipstick
  • Mascara
  • Face powder
  • Children’s toy makeup kits
  • Deodorants

Environmental Asbestos Exposure

Environmental asbestos exposure is one of the rarer types of exposure, but it is especially dangerous since it’s largely inescapable for residents of specific areas. It is not segmented to people working a specific occupation or buying a specific cosmetic product. Environmental exposure occurs in a specific neighborhood or city, often near an asbestos mine or processing plant, contaminating the air people breathe, the water they drink, or the food they eat.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and must be mined for use. Mineral deposits can be found throughout the United States, which means asbestos mining was a common occurrence. During the mining and processing of asbestos, toxic fibers and dust can be dispersed into the air, water, wind or soil. This creates an extreme risk for mine workers and residents living in nearby neighborhoods or towns.

The most notorious example of environmental asbestos exposure is Libby, Montana. The small town was the site of a vermiculite ore mining operation. Asbestos can contaminate vermiculite, which was dumped in excess throughout Libby. Mountains of rock debris were scattered throughout the town, some near baseball fields, parks and schools.

The vermiculite plant operated from 1924-1990, and more than 2,500 people who lived or worked in Libby during that time died of asbestos-related diseases. Business Insider listed the environmental asbestos exposure crisis in Libby as one of the “9 deadliest man-made disasters of the past 50 years.”

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Find out where you may have been exposed to asbestos

A nation wide list of sites where you or a loved one may have come in contact with asbestos.

Asbestos Exposure and the Health Risks

Asbestos exposure can occur in a variety of ways. Each type of asbestos exposure differs, but they all have one commonality: disturbance. Asbestos in its natural form is not usually dangerous. It is a naturally-occurring mineral found within the earth, often inside certain rock formations. When asbestos is disturbed and breaks apart from the rock, it becomes a health hazard.

The mineral is made of microscopic, sharp fibers that are brittle and can splinter easily. When the tiny asbestos particles separate from its rock formation, building material or specific consumer product, it can create toxic dust and contaminate the air.

Asbestos dust is nearly impossible to identify by sight, so most people in the presence of the mineral or the toxic dust are unaware of it. Breathing in or swallowing asbestos fibers (or dust) can have severe health consequences.

The effects of inhaling (breathing in) or ingesting (swallowing) asbestos particles can be deadly. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and can lead to several serious health conditions, such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and more.

Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is one of the many health conditions linked to asbestos exposure. However, the only cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. This rare cancer is diagnosed less than 3,000 times a year in the United States.

Any amount of asbestos exposure can lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis. There is no safe level of exposure. Anyone who has come in direct contact with asbestos or anyone who worked with asbestos is at risk for this cancer. There have been cases of mesothelioma and other conditions for people who experienced secondhand exposure.

Mesothelioma forms when asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed. There are two main types of mesothelioma: pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma forms in the lining of the lungs, while peritoneal mesothelioma forms in the lining of the abdomen.

When asbestos fibers infiltrate the body, they may travel to the lungs or abdomen and become lodged in thin linings. If asbestos fibers become lodged in the body, they cause irritation, cell mutation, and possible tumor formation. This cannot be stopped as most people are unaware they were ever exposed to asbestos in the first place.

One of the challenges in defeating mesothelioma is the extensive latency period, which is the time between exposure and experiencing significant symptoms. The latency period for mesothelioma can be up to 50 years or more, which means a woman using asbestos-contaminated talc products in the late 1980s may not yet be diagnosed – or even experiencing any symptoms.

If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and may have been exposed to asbestos through your job, your loved one’s job, old asbestos in your home, talcum powder products or in the environment, contact our patient advocates. They can help determine your exposure history, connect you with cancer centers and mesothelioma specialists, and even help you learn how you can hold the corporations responsible for your exposure accountable for their negligence.

Frequently Asked Questions About Types of Asbestos Exposure

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What is the Most Common Form of Asbestos Exposure?

Occupational asbestos exposure is historically the most common type of asbestos exposure. This type of exposure happens in job positions that work closely or directly with asbestos and asbestos materials. The top occupations linked to asbestos exposure are shipbuilders, U.S. Navy members and construction workers.

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How Do I Know if I’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos?

The only way to know if you’ve been exposed to asbestos is to review your personal work history (occupational exposure), your spouse, child, or close family member’s work history (secondary exposure), asbestos-contaminated product use (product exposure), and asses your home or office for old asbestos-containing materials (legacy exposure). Asbestos can be anywhere. To better determine your exposure history, connect with our patient advocates. They can help determine your asbestos exposure and connect you with top mesothelioma specialists.

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What Illnesses are Linked to Asbestos Exposure?

Mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, colon cancer, throat cancer, ovarian cancer and lung scarring are health conditions linked to asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that can be difficult to diagnose and treat. It’s important to be aware of asbestos and the risk of exposure to know if you are susceptible to developing a serious health condition.

Sources & Author

  1. Malignant Mesothelioma and Occupational Exposure to Asbestos: an Analysis of 1445 Cases. British Occupational Hygiene Society. Retrieved from: https://academic.oup.com/annweh/article/46/suppl_1/150/317508. Accessed: 08/11/20.
  2. Alert: Tests Find High Levels of Asbestos in Children’s Makeup Kit. Environmental Working Group. Retrieved from: https://www.ewg.org/release/alert-tests-find-high-levels-asbestos-children-s-makeup-kit. Accessed: 01/23/2020.
  3. Asbestos Found In Ten Powders. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/1976/03/10/archives/asbestos-found-in-ten-powders.html. Accessed: 03/24/2020.
  4. The Hidden Killer: 10 Things You Need to Know About Legacy Asbestos. Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Retrieved from: https://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/newsroom/blogs/the-hidden-killer-10-things-you-need-to-know-about-legacy-asbestos/. Accessed: 11/10/2022.
  5. Asbestos in the natural environment: how safe are we? United Nations Environment Programme. Retrieved from: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/asbestos-natural-environment-how-safe-are-we. Accessed: 06/21/2023.
  6. Naturally Occurring Asbestos. Where Is Asbestos Found? Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved from: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/noa/where_is_asbestos_found.html. Accessed: 06/13/2023.
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About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is the senior content writer and editor for Mesothelioma Guide. She creates informative content to educate mesothelioma patients and their loved ones on news, treatments and more. She also works diligently to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure and the effects of mesothelioma.