Asbestos: Toxic Fibers that Can Lead to Cancer

Source: Mesothelioma Center at

When discussing workplace health concerns, it’s impossible to leave asbestos out of the conversation. While occupational health experts acknowledge it as a human carcinogen, more than 120 million people worldwide still come into contact with the fibers at their work sites.

In the past, thousands of manufacturers added the fibers to their commercial and industrial products. Because asbestos was inexpensive, easy to acquire and highly durable, it was used in everything from insulation to roofing products.

Asbestos industry workers who made these products from raw materials handled the loose fibers every day, and workplace exposure was inevitable. But employees who used asbestos products in their finished form also faced occupational health hazards. More than 75 occupational groups – many of them in the blue-collar sector – have used the fibers in some way.

Occupations with a strong exposure history include:

• Auto mechanics

• Factory workers

• Boiler room workers

• Power plant workers

• Blacksmiths

• Insulators

Workers in jobs like these often handled asbestos on a daily basis. Once they inhaled or ingested the fibers, their risk for illnesses like mesothelioma of the peritoneum and lung cancer drastically increased. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related illnesses.

Current Asbestos Hazards in the Workplace

While we expect to see these rates decrease as occupational health measures increase, workplace exposure hazards still exist. Asbestos products are more tightly regulated than they were in the past, but they’re not officially banned in the United States.

Old asbestos products that have been in place for the last 20 to 30 years pose the majority of workplace exposure threats. Construction, demolition and home renovation workers can encounter the fibers as they pull out and replace old asbestos-containing materials. Firefighters face a similar risk as they respond to calls in older buildings; the flames can damage asbestos products to the point that the fibers enter the air.

To avoid inhaling airborne asbestos, it’s important for workers to wear appropriate respiratory protection when they work in potentially contaminated areas. Full-face respirators and additional body coverings are essential in keeping the microscopic fibers out of the body.

Workers must also keep their contaminated clothing away from their off-duty clothes. It’s crucial to wash the clothes at work, in a specially designated machine, to help avoid bringing the carcinogenic fibers away from the jobsite.

Lastly – but certainly not least – workers should never accept jobs that require them to handle asbestos if they don’t hold an up-to-date asbestos certification. State-accredited programs provide essential guidance in identifying, handling and properly disposing of asbestos materials that pose occupational health threats.

For information on Asbestos and Mesothelioma life expectancy please visit

Faith Franz writes for The Mesothelioma Center at She encourages patients to consider the benefits of alternative medicine.