Is Any Amount of Asbestos Exposure Bad for You?

July 1, 2018
Is Any Amount of Asbestos Exposure Bad for You?

Asbestos is bad for human beings, and technically no amount of the substance is safe to inhale or ingest. Even so, inhaling asbestos-filled air once in your life will probably not produce any long-term effects down the road.

After a 2007 steam pipe explosion in Grand Central Station in New York City, residents and commuters were rightfully concerned about the possibility of asbestos in the air. While the air in the station was free of the substance, it could still be found in post-explosion dust and debris. The city quelled concerns, noting that limited exposure to small amounts of asbestos would, again, not cause long-term health issues. In that case, how much exposure does it take for asbestos to produce deadly diseases?

How Much Asbestos?

Most asbestos-related diseases— mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and other conditions of the lining of the lungs—affect individuals who worked closely with the substance over a period of several years. Back in the 1940s, asbestos was commonplace in many work environments because its toxic effects had not been well-documented. The material didn’t really fall out of widespread use until 1980, meaning that most people with asbestos-related illnesses worked sometime during that 40-year time period.

Numerous studies have been done on patients who were known to have been exposed to large quantities of asbestos. But little research exists on what exposure to lesser amounts of the substance can do to the body. Scientists believe there are a few variables when it comes to incurring diseases at low levels of exposure. These include:

  • Genetics
  • Whether the patient is or was a smoker
  • The type of asbestos fiber they were exposed to

This reveals that someone with a genetic predisposition toward developing mesothelioma, for example, could be more at risk than someone exposed to the same levels of asbestos.

Can Low Levels of Asbestos Exposure Produce Diseases?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on the town of Libby, Montana in 2002. The main industry in Libby for over half a century was vermiculite mining. The study looked at asbestos-related mortality rates in the town between 1979 and 1998. Researchers were surprised to find that asbestosis rates were 40 to 60 times higher than anticipated.

This is despite that fact that many victims were exposed to asbestos in concentrations that were currently allowed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Federal regulations mandate that the air in a workplace have no more than 0.1 asbestos fibers for every cubic centimeter. As the Libby study shows, however, long-term exposure to even low levels of asbestos can still produce diseases.

As it stands, some amount of asbestos in the workplace is still legal. For some industries like plastics manufacturing, the amount of asbestos that workers legally allowed to be exposed to is 0.5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter. Still, occupational regulations and general lack of asbestos in many industries has reduced the risk significantly over the years. While asbestos is still legal in the United States for certain applications, the toxic substance doesn’t appear to be hanging around much longer.

If you or a family member has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, call or email us for a free consultation.