Asbestos Exposure Sites

Asbestos Exposure Sites in the United States

Asbestos usage in the United States of America dates back to the 1800s. Asbestos is the term used to describe a variety of minerals containing silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, and other metal ions. When the needle-shaped fibers are so minute that they can go undetected unless a high concentration is released into the air. Before the 1980s and prior to the establishment of US mesothelioma and asbestos laws, asbestos was mined and used for different construction and commercial activities. States like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, and Wyoming mined the mineral. Others had processing plants and companies that either used asbestos as part of their facilities or to make consumer products like paper products, cement products, friction products, heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, gaskets, and coatings. They were highly prized for their strength, flexibility, and heat resistance.

Due to its wide usage in various sectors in every state today, there are numerous sites with some prevalence of asbestos. People who live or have worked in these environments risk exposure to asbestos and its associated hazards.

Research has shown that long-term asbestos exposure can be damaging to human health. This is because prolonged exposure to asbestos often causes ailments that lead to untimely death or leave the victims with an adjusted life of disability. Such diseases include lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural thickening, and mesothelioma.

How Does Asbestos Exposure Happen?

Asbestos exposure occurs when the fibers are released into the air. Asbestos are usually not harmful unless they are disturbed, damaged, or worn out in materials or products containing them. They also become airborne during demolition and renovation activities at sites where they are present. When either of these happens to the material, the fibers become airborne and can stay in the air for hours and residents may inhale or ingest them.

Exposure by inhalation

This is the most common way for the human body to become exposed to asbestos. A person may breathe in contaminated air when working on asbestos-containing sites, living in buildings created with asbestos-containing materials, or in environments containing abundant asbestos deposits.

Through limitations put in place by the government and enforced through authorities such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposures from mining activities have grown less common. However, as a result of demolition and home renovation activities, records of exposure have risen.

Exposure by ingestion

Apart from inhalation, people become exposed to asbestos when they ingest substances contaminated with asbestos. For instance, exposure can occur through drinking water or liquids contaminated with asbestos. Deteriorating pipes made with asbestos may contaminate drinking water and put consumers at risk. Ingestion can also happen while swimming in contaminated water or eating contaminated clams and other biotas.

Meanwhile, asbestos exposure may also occur through skin contact. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, contact with damaged ACM could cause the fibers to come on the human skin. However, this exposure does not adversely affect the health of the individual.

Where Does Asbestos Exposure Occur?

Asbestos exposure can occur in any part of the United States. This is because, across the 50 states, there are numerous sites (majorly worksites and natural sites domiciled within the environment) with a high prevalence of the asbestos mineral. These sites include natural asbestos deposits found in rocks and soil deposits, asbestos mines, and processing plants such as:

Whereas most states with the natural deposits mined asbestos for commercial purposes and deployed it for use in a variety of industries, states without the natural deposits shipped and processed the mineral for manufacturing and other industrial purposes.

Today, mining activities have been banned across the US, and clean-up activities are in place and are being handled by the EPA. It is worth noting that some sites have been cleared of asbestos). However, owing to the past use of asbestos for manufacturing and commercial purposes, asbestos exposure has become prevalent in various military sites, such as military bases and shipyards, processing plants, oil refineries, and steel factories. While some of these sites have ceased operations, occupants living close to the sites may remain exposed to asbestos, especially in scenarios where these sites have not been properly cleaned up.

Other sources of asbestos exposure are schools, homes, products, vehicle parts, aircraft, and naval vessels built before the 1980s.

Who is at Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

Because of the abundance of natural asbestos deposits and the long history of asbestos use, many people across the country are at risk of getting exposed to the fibers. Some exposures may occur at a minimal rate (sometimes just once) in the individual's lifetime and may not be known or harmful to the individual. But when the exposure is more recurrent and prolonged, it becomes a major health concern. Persons susceptible to such asbestos exposure are usually employees or workers in job sites or sectors involved with the heavy or frequent use of asbestos. Among these people are:

  • Miners
  • Shipyard workers
  • Construction workers (including pipefitters, plasterers, plumbers, roofers, electricians, and carpenters)
  • Auto mechanics (persons involved in repair of brakes and clutches)
  • Demolition workers
  • Industry workers (steel plant workers, welders, chemical plant workers, refinery workers, mechanics, machine and furnace operators, molders, maintenance workers, and millwrights)
  • Army veterans and first responders to emergencies

Workers also risk exposing other persons related to them as asbestos fibers can be carried home by workers in their hair, clothing, and personal possessions. When this happens, personal contact with family members puts loved ones at risk of exposure to the toxic mineral. This form of exposure is known as "secondary asbestos exposure".

Similarly, residents living in houses built before the 1980s (most of which were constructed with asbestos-containing materials) or in suburbs with naturally occurring asbestos deposits or mines stands are also likely to be exposed to asbestos. These individuals become exposed through activities that involve direct or indirect contact with such materials at homes, such as demolitions, renovations, and auto repair. It is recommended that homeowners or tenants engage the services of a certified asbestos contractor to inspect and remove the asbestos materials in their homes.

How Much Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancerous tumor that occurs in the thin layer of tissue covering most of the internal organs in the body. It is a rare and deadly form of cancer that targets organs such as the lungs, heart, abdomen, and testicles. The most common attack is on the lungs (pleura). About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. Coupled with its rarity, mesothelioma is often characterized by a long latency period (usually 20 to 50 years) before being discovered and a short life expectancy. This is why it is more common in the older generation than in the younger ones.

Furthermore, once a person is diagnosed with mesothelioma, the average survival period is 12 to 21 months. Asbestos exposure is known to be the primary cause of mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibers remain on the tissues covering internal organs after an individual inhales or ingests them, causing inflammation. As time passes, tumors grow on the damaged cells, leading to mesothelioma. Currently, there is no specific amount of asbestos exposure attributed to this disease. Nevertheless, the National Cancer Institute posits that some risk factors may be considered to determine how asbestos exposure increases the risk of contracting mesothelioma, and they include:

  • The extent of exposure (most cases of mesothelioma have been linked with high levels of exposure while at work)
  • Amount of concentration of asbestos (asbestos exposure is known to have the worst impact when a person is exposed to an intense or frequent concentration over time)
  • Pre-existing health conditions (lung disease, heart issues)
  • Genetic factors, such as having a germline mutation
  • Smoking (people exposed to asbestos on the job or at any time during their life are advised to stop smoking).

Asbestos Exposure Symptoms

Identifying exposure to asbestos is often challenging unless symptoms are associated with a related disease. Because of the long latency period of many diseases, symptoms may not appear for decades after exposure. However, these diseases have similar symptoms. For instance, because most asbestos-related diseases are respiratory-related, most exposure symptoms involve the lungs. They include: Shortness of breath, wheezing, prolonged dry cough, blood in fluids coughed up from the lungs, chest pain or tightness, difficulty swallowing, swelling of the neck or face, loss of appetite, weight loss, chest pain or tightness, bowel obstruction and hernia.

Asbestos Exposure From Products

In the past, asbestos was extensively used to create many products. These products, generally termed asbestos-containing materials (having more than one percent of the fibers), were deployed for commercial, industrial, and domestic purposes. Some of these products include:

  • Floor, ceiling, and roofing tiles.
  • Adhesives
  • Automotive parts (gaskets, brake pads, clutches, hood liners)
  • Cement
  • Construction mastics
  • Diaphragms
  • Electrical components
  • Vinyl products
  • Hairdryers
  • Talcum powder
  • Domestic products and home appliances

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Clean Air Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Act all limit the use of asbestos-containing materials in the United States. Some of the materials have been placed on the outright ban (banned products are accessible on the EPA website). However, several asbestos-containing materials still remain in homes, schools, and different organizations (pipe fittings, ceilings, attic insulation, gaskets, and floor tiles) placing several citizens in danger of exposure. Also in recent times, asbestos has been detected in contaminated talc products, including baby powder, children's toys, crayons, and fingerprint kits, all of which aggravate the risk of exposure. Likewise, the EPA, in its December 2020 Final Risk Evaluation for Asbestos Report, discovered some risks to human health associated with the use of chrysotile (the only known form of asbestos still being imported into America).

Though the government has yet to enforce an outright ban on asbestos use, the EPA strives in its capacity to protect the public from exposure to this toxin. The agency mandates that only a maximum of one percent of asbestos be used in products. ACM manufacturers are required to include a warning label stating that their products contain more than 1% asbestos. Accordingly, the agency seeks ways to address risks from new and legacy asbestos products.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that, unless damaged or disturbed, most asbestos-containing materials do not pose any danger to the user.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

As previously noted, asbestos exposure can occur in a variety of places around the United States, one of which is the workplace. When a person becomes exposed to asbestos while at work, such exposure is termed "occupational exposure". Occupational exposure remains the leading cause of many asbestos-related diseases in the U.S. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, approximately 1.3 million workers in the construction and general industry are exposed to asbestos on the job each year (OSHA). This is because workers in these settings deal with a high number of asbestos-containing materials and, as such, are always at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Despite the widespread use of asbestos, workers remain exposed due to long-term involvement and exposure to facilities within the workplace that were originally constructed with the fibers.

To protect workers, federal agencies including the OSHA, EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have put in place regulations mandating employers to ensure safe working conditions for their staff. One of the imperatives of this is providing protective clothing and equipment for employees handling ACM's work around asbestos. Furthermore, each of these agencies is empowered by law to fine and sanction companies who violate the regulations.

Environmental Asbestos Exposure

Environmental exposure (also known as non-occupational exposure) occurs when people get exposed to asbestos emissions in their communities. This type of exposure occurs when industrial or commercial activities release asbestos into the environment and contaminate air, water, and soil. Because the asbestos does not degrade easily, it can linger in the air for a long period and may be inhaled by individuals around the environment. It can also travel by wind to other suburbs by wind or water before settling, further affecting adjoining communities. Asbestos emissions are often discharged into the environment by one of the following methods:

  • Mining and processing activities
  • Gardening and reactionary activities
  • Natural disasters (floods, wildfires, tornadoes, and earthquakes)
  • Improper removal of asbestos waste

When the environment gets contaminated by asbestos, people living or working near the polluted sites become prone to asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis, and pleural thickening.

Asbestos Exposure by States

By and large, every state has multiple sources of asbestos exposure. Due to the extensive use of fibers, Americans are vulnerable to the dangers that come with it. However, while exposure is common across every state, the sources and incidence levels differ. For example, in states like Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and California with naturally occurring asbestos, there was a higher risk of environmental exposure. Occupational asbestos exposure and its related diseases ranked higher in states (New Jersey, Michigan, and Texas) that utilized asbestos for industrial and commercial purposes. Similarly, in coastal regions like Louisiana, Florida, California, and New York, exposure was prominent in shipyards. However, more landlocked states, such as Missouri, were more reliant on asbestos in their chemical plants and oil refineries.

Accordingly, incidence rates of asbestos-related diseases are higher in the eastern and western states when compared with other states. For instance, California accounts for the highest number of mesothelioma deaths in the U.S. with 21,000 deaths, followed by Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and New York.

States with the Most Naturally Occurring Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral resource found in rocks and soil before it is processed into products. When it is in its natural state, it is referred to as Naturally Occurring Asbestos (NOA). NOAs are commonly found in serpentine rocks, altered ultramafic rocks, and some mafic rocks as well as in soils where these rocks are situated.

Usually, asbestos in its natural state is not harmful unless it is disturbed through weathering, erosion, or human routine activities—mining operations (drilling and blasting); milling; demolition of buildings made with the fibers; gardening; and improper disposal of asbestos waste. People living or working in naturally occurring asbestos sites face an elevated risk of exposure when these disturbances occur. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, over 900 occurrences of fibrous minerals can be found in the U.S. and the most common form of this mineral is chrysotile. The states with the highest number of NOAs are as follows:

California

California, with 290 natural asbestos deposits, has the highest number of NOAs in the US. This is largely because serpentine rocks, a major source of the chrysotile mineral, are common in many counties within the state. Counties abundant in NOA include Humboldt, El Dorado, Monterey, Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and San Mateo counties. One of the areas of concern is the Clear Creek Management Area (CCMA) in San Benito and Fresno Counties. The area formerly the base of the Atlas Asbestos Mine (now a superfund site) is one of California's most famous recreational centers. However, it sits on 31,000 acres of serpentine deposits, one of the largest asbestos deposits in the world. To limit public exposure to the toxic fibers, visitors are now restricted to five per year.

Many risky areas in these counties have been designated as Superfund sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The act addresses abandoned hazardous waste sites in the country.

Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, natural asbestos present in rock formations ranges from less than 1% to about 25%. Based on reports from the US Geological Survey, Pennsylvania has at least 40 natural asbestos deposits and was once home to four asbestos mines. One of the natural asbestos sites is the Rock Hill Quarry in Bucks County. To protect public exposure, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regulates the removal, collection, transportation, and disposal of asbestos in the state. Who also has its share of superfund sites, and these include the BoRit asbestos site in Amber, the Asbestos Piles Site also in Ambler, as well as the Huntertown Road in Adams County.

New Jersey

There are over 35 naturally occurring asbestos deposits in New Jersey. The east coast state is abundant with several mines, many of which exploited the naturally occurring asbestos minerals for various purposes. Examples of these sites include Oxford quarry in Warren County, Sterling Hill mines in Sussex County (now a tourist site), Prospect Park quarry, Old Blue mine, and the Green Swamp Dam in Passaic County.

Washington

The Swift Creek and the Sumas River in Whatcom County are two of the major NOA sites in Washington. Suspended at the bottom of the Sumas River are rock sediments comprising about 37% chrysotile asbestos. When floodwaters rise, asbestos minerals get redistributed across the environment and may pose risks to the residents moving around the flood debris. Officials are working on a project to contain the contaminated sediment, but this may take years to complete. Asbestos has also been discovered in other hilly parts of the state, including the Okanogan Highlands and the central Cascades, Wenatchee, and Ellensburg.

Virginia

Virginia also contains abundant natural deposits of asbestos. Over 25 naturally occurring sites exist in the state. The highest concentrations of asbestos are along the Blue Ridge, an Appalachian range that runs southwest from the Maryland border near Fairfax County and Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Geological Survey provides an interactive map that interested people use to locate natural asbestos deposits within or nearest to their environment.

Public Buildings with Documented Asbestos

A public building is defined by U.S. Code 3101 (Public Buildings, Property, and Works) as any structure (or portion thereof) owned or leased for use by a government agency. Examples are office buildings, school buildings, courthouses, post offices, laboratories, historic buildings, etc. In many old buildings constructed before the 1980s, ACMs were used to make fireproofing, soundproofing, acoustic ceiling tiles, concrete pipes, and siding. The older a building is, the more likely the presence of asbestos. In most cases, asbestos in buildings does not constitute a health risk to anyone unless it is damaged or friable. When friable asbestos is poorly maintained or when buildings are removed or refurbished, it poses a health danger. Unless frequently assessed, friable asbestos may be inherent and not be discovered early.

To prevent these exposures, the EPA provides guidelines for renovating and tearing down buildings containing ACM. The agency also guides building managers to develop and maintain a program for managing ACM in buildings. The Public Buildings Service unit of the U.S. General Services Administration (an independent agency responsible for managing public workplaces owned by the government) implements Asbestos Management Plans in line with the OSHA and EPA standards for each building under its control. The plan is created based on the type of asbestos-containing material (ACM), its quantity, and the building's location. Meanwhile, schools have different regulatory requirements under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).

Asbestos Mines and Environmental Risks

Before the 20th century, America was heavily involved in the mining of asbestos. States including Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Vermont, and Montana had mining companies that processed the asbestos ore. Some of the prominent mining companies at the time were King City Asbestos Company Mine, California; BoRit; and Amber Mines in Pennsylvania.

Today, asbestos mining is prohibited across the country, but the scars of the past remain, as trash from prior asbestos mining operations still floats through the air, carrying asbestos fibers into the environment and putting residents' lives in danger. An example of this is the small mining town of Libby, Montana, which, even after halting mining activity as far back as 1990, still has quite a few residents dealing with asbestos-related diseases. Currently, at least 1 in 10 residents of Libby has an asbestos-related illness.

To stay safe, people who live in neighborhoods near mining operations must exercise caution to ensure that asbestos deposits are not disturbed through their routines or recreational activities.

Firefighter Asbestos Exposure in the United States

Firefighting professionals are one of the occupations at high risk of exposure to asbestos in the U.S. These first responders usually come into contact with asbestos through routine house fires, forest fires, or building collapses. As previously stated, asbestos is present in many buildings constructed before the 1980s. When a collapse or fire incident occurs in such a prehistoric structure, the fibers break apart and become airborne. Firefighters, while performing their duties, may inhale the fibers or carry them on their clothes, hair, and skin if they are not wearing adequate respiratory equipment. Some firefighters have also been exposed to asbestos in protective gear developed with the fibers to create fireproof clothing.

Usually, firefighters face an elevated risk as they tend to consume a lot of fibers in a short time, whereas regular workers inhale little by little. A 2013 report issued by NIOSH revealed that when compared to the average American, firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma.

Veterans Asbestos Exposure in the United States

The military remains one of the sectors with the highest use of asbestos in the 20th century. Every branch of the United States military used asbestos extensively. Asbestos was used for fireproofing, insulation, and construction purposes. The prominent sites for use within the military sector were shipyards, military bases, airplanes, submarines, and armored vehicles.

As a result of its extensive use, veterans who served in the military before the 1980s have become highly susceptible to asbestos exposure and its related diseases. Today in America, veterans account for 30% of mesothelioma claims filed annually. To care for the needs of these veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides disability fees to victims of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions.

Non-cancerous Conditions Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos places people at risk. Developing diseases that can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (or cancerous) Benign diseases are sometimes as life-threatening as malignant tumors. However, they might differ in the extent of exposure required to cause each condition.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease characterized by scarring and inflammation. It prevents the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally, thus causing chest pain, tightness, and shortness of breath. Though it is non-cancerous, asbestosis is still a very serious ailment that can contribute to loss of life.

Pleural Plaques

These are areas of thickened tissue that form in the lining of the lungs. The plaques develop on both layers of the thin membrane surrounding the lungs and the inner part of the chest wall. Pleural plaques often take between 10 to 30 years after exposure to develop and reflect no obvious symptoms. It is also not life-threatening and usually needs no treatment. While this disease is not cancerous, diagnosed patients are at a higher risk of developing other malignant diseases such as mesothelioma and pleural thickening.

Other non-cancerous conditions include pleuritis, pleural effusions, atelectasis, diffuse pleural thickening, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Asbestos Exposure: Who is Responsible and How Do I Prove It?

Asbestos exposure comes from both natural and man-made activities. When events such as weathering and erosion disturb natural existing asbestos deposits, causing fibers to become airborne, such actions are beyond human control. But when the exposure occurs as a result of man-made activities, it often occurs as a result of negligence. Despite knowing the health hazards associated with asbestos, some entities willfully deploy the mineral on their sites and products without considering the safety of their employees, consumers, or the host community.

Due to the negligence of these organizations, people have developed adverse health conditions for decades. Examples of such entities are mining companies, employers or site owners of facilities containing ACMs, manufacturers of asbestos products, and landlords of buildings made with ACMs.

Victims of asbestos exposure are empowered by law to make use of any of these entities and to demand compensation for damages suffered. However, there is a caveat: victims must be able to prove that the suffering incurred from the exposure was a result of the company's negligence. Proof may be in the form of witnesses (co-workers at the site) or a document that confirms that the employer was aware of the dangers of asbestos but failed to take any reasonable practical steps to prevent asbestos exposure. Likewise, where the liable entity is a manufacturer of ACM, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the exposure from products sold to them is sufficient to indict the company.

Can Multiple Jobs Be Responsible for Asbestos Exposure?

Yes. Before the ban on asbestos mining and processing, a lot of workers had more than one job that involved heavy use of asbestos. As such, many were exposed to asbestos from more than one source in the workplace.

Since all of these employers are responsible for the exposure and the damage caused to their health, victims of such multiple exposures have the legal right to demand compensation from each liable company.