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How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber found in many types of rocks, sediments, and soils worldwide. It was widely used in numerous industries due to its excellent strength, insulating properties, and heat resistance, making it ideal for use in construction, shipbuilding, insulation, and even consumer goods. While it offers great benefits in terms of functionality, asbestos poses a significant threat to public health due to its ability to break down into microscopic fibers and persist in the environment. When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, crushed, or broken down, these fibers can become airborne, which can then enter our bodies via inhalation, causing irreparable damage to organs and systems over time.

People are primarily exposed to asbestos at workplaces where ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) are present, especially those related to the construction sector, shipyards, rail transport, and certain chemical plants. Since the 1980s, the United States government imposed strict regulations on the use and disposal of asbestos-related materials. Despite this, many older buildings still contain asbestos-laced components, such as flooring, ceiling tiles, roof shingles, piping, and insulation, which need careful management or complete replacement to avoid the potential health hazards associated with asbestos exposure. Some common scenarios involving asbestos exposure include:

Occupational exposure: Workers involved in mining, milling, manufacturing, installation, repair, removal, or maintenance of asbestos-containing products are at greatest risk. Industries like construction, automotive brake and clutch repairs, shipbuilding, and fireproofing have historically utilized large amounts of asbestos. Occasionally, family members of these workers might inadvertently inhale asbestos fibers brought home via personal belongings or clothing.

Domestic exposure: Indirect asbestos exposure occurs when disturbed asbestos-containing materials become airborne during daily household chores or renovation/demolition projects. Products such as insulation, floor tiles, roof shingles, cement sheets, textured paints, and heating systems often included asbestos in past decades. Children returning to school after summer vacations spent playing in dirt piles or abandoned buildings could bring backtraces of asbestos on their clothes or shoes.

Environmental exposure: Naturally occurring asbestos deposits can occur in soils, mountains, or riverbeds, posing risks to nearby communities or miners. Weather events like windstorms, earthquakes, or landslides can disrupt these locations, releasing asbestos fibers into the surrounding area. Additionally, residential proximity to active mines or processing facilities can increase community exposure risk.

exposure: Though rare, specific consumer goods like talcum powder, vermiculite insulation, or occasionally crushed garnet gemstones might contain asbestos.

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