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Asbestos is a natural mineral. It is made up of fibers, is very durable, and is extremely heat-resistant. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water and soil. Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life, but most people do not become ill from their exposure.

People who breathe in asbestos fibers are at risk for several serious diseases. These diseases include lung cancer, digestive tract cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer in the lining of the lungs or stomach) and asbestosis (lung scarring). In general, the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the chance of developing harmful health effects.

You are at increased risk for asbestos-related diseases if:

  • You are exposed to asbestos on a regular basis, usually over many years.
  • You work as a construction, insulation or shipyard worker and have installed, disturbed or removed asbestos without proper protection.

Also, smokers who are exposed to asbestos have a much higher risk for disease than non-smokers who are exposed.

Asbestos exposure does not usually cause immediate health conditions, such as difficulty in breathing or skin problems.

Exposure to Asbestos

People are exposed to asbestos when they breathe in asbestos fibers. Asbestos can be released into the air when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed. Undamaged asbestos-containing materials do not pose a health risk.

There are no routine medical tests for asbestos exposure. Chest X-rays and lung function tests can show lung damage once it has formed. Asbestos-related diseases may not develop until 10 to 40 years after exposure.

Finding Asbestos

Asbestos has been banned from use in many countries around the world, but it has not been fully banned in the U.S.

Common materials that may have asbestos include:

  • Fireproofing products
  • Insulation
  • Roofing materials
  • Ceiling and floor tiles
  • Cement products
  • Automotive brakes, brake linings and clutches
  • Heat- and corrosion-resistant products

Licensed environmental inspectors can test materials and the air for asbestos. Testing the air or materials for asbestos may be useful in identifying potential exposures and evaluating the effectiveness of proper asbestos removal and cleanup.

If you have asbestos in ceilings, flooring or in insulation on pipes, boilers or furnaces in your home or business, it is important to make sure these materials remain undamaged. If you're not sure if the insulation contains asbestos, hire a trained inspector to test the material.

Public Building Requirements

Building owners must follow federal rules on the proper care of asbestos materials.

Schools are required to identify and safely handle asbestos materials. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires private employers to protect workers from asbestos exposure. In New York State, the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau requires the same protection for city, county and state workers.

To report a problem with asbestos, call 311 or submit a complaint online.

Additional Resources

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