Health Effects of Asbestos

A fibrous mineral occurring in nature, asbestos is resistant to flames. This fireproof quality once made it very popular in insulation and other home building materials, especially in the 1950s. However, breathing in asbestos fibers can cause serious negative health effects.

Part of the danger of asbestos exposure is that it can take a long time, even years, after the exposure for symptoms to start showing up. In other words, you might start demonstrating signs of asbestos-related disease as an adult due to an exposure that happened when you were a child. Though asbestos exposure can affect multiple areas of the body, the lungs are particularly at risk.

Pleural Disease

The pleura are membranes that cover the lungs and line the chest cavity. Exposure to asbestos can cause changes in the pleura which, though sometimes asymptomatic, can affect lung efficiency. Examples of possible pleural disease from asbestos exposure include effusions, which are a buildup of fluid, and thickening, which may happen diffusely or form plaques in small isolated areas.


When you breathe in asbestos fibers, they can remain in your lungs and cause scarring of the tissues. The name given to the scarring is asbestosis, and it can affect your ability to breathe by making the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide more difficult. A single exposure to the fibers is unlikely to cause asbestosis. It more often occurs in people who were exposed to high amounts, usually through their work, over a long period of time.


The federal government considers asbestos to be a known human carcinogen. Exposure increases your risk of developing lung cancer, especially if you also smoke tobacco. Asbestos is also associated with a rare lung cancer called mesothelioma that can affect the pleura or nearby membranes.

However, lung cancer is not the only type associated with asbestos exposure. Breathing in asbestos fibers is also associated with cancers in the following locations:

  • Pharynx (space in the back of the throat connecting to the nose and ears)
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Gastrointestinal tract (particularly the stomach and large intestine)
  • Ovaries (female reproductive organs)

Cancer of the lungs can affect your ability to breathe, while malignancies involving the other areas become particularly dangerous if they spread to other areas of the body.

Due to the risk of negative health effects, asbestos is no longer used in building materials and hasn’t been for about 40 years. Nevertheless, older buildings, especially private residences, may still contain it. If you believe you may have asbestos in your home or professional building, contact our office. An asbestos abatement contractor, like from Nielsen Environmental, can safely perform an assessment.