What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that occurs in rock and soil. Asbestos has been used in a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire retardant because of its fiber strength and heat resistance. Asbestos has also been used in a wide range of man

ufactured goods, mostly in building materials (roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products), friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts), heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, gaskets, and coatings.

Exposure to asbestos occurs when asbestos fibers are be released into the air by the disturbance of asbestos-containing material during product use, demolition work, building or home maintenance, repair, and remodeling. In general, exposure may occur only when the asbestos-containing material is disturbed or damaged in some way to release particles and fibers into the air.

Where can Asbestos be found?

Asbestos can be found in a variety of places including schools, office buildings, and even your home. Asbestos can more specifically be found in the following places:

  • Attic and wall insulation produced containing vermiculite
  • Vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Textured paint and patching compounds used on wall and ceilings
  • Walls and floors around wood-burning stoves protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets
  • Hot water and steam pipes coated with asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape
  • Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets with asbestos insulation
  • Heat-resistant fabrics
  • Automobile clutches and brakes
  • Public or private water supplies

The Health Effects of Asbestos

In general, the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the chance of developing harmful health effects, especially lung disease. Disease symptoms may take many years to develop following exposure and asbestos-related conditions can be difficult to identify. Healthcare providers usually identify the possibility of asbestos exposure and related health conditions like lung disease by taking a thorough medical history which includes looking at the person’s medical, work, cultural and environmental history.

Risk Factors

Chronic exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders.

Various factors determine how exposure to asbestos affects an individual:

  • Exposure concentration – what was the concentration of asbestos fibers?
  • Exposure duration – how long did the exposure time period last?
  • Exposure frequency – how often during that time period was the person exposed?
  • Size, shape and chemical makeup of asbestos fibers.
  • Individual risk factors, such as a person’s history of tobacco use (smoking) and other pre-existing lung disease, etc.


Mesothelioma typically develops after exposure to asbestos in the workplace, including industrial settings such as shipyards and auto repair shops, old houses, schools and public buildings. It is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin lining of the lung, chest and the abdomen and heart. The majority of references to asbestos cancer speak to mesothelioma because it is the only one that is almost exclusively caused by the mineral. Mesothelioma can develop after someone inhales or ingests large amounts of asbestos over time. While it usually takes long-term exposure to put someone at risk, short-term and one-time exposures are also known to cause mesothelioma cancer.

During exposure, microscopic asbestos fibers are breathed in or swallowed, and the human body has difficulty destroying or getting rid of them. Over decades, fibers cause biological changes that result in inflammation, scarring and genetic damage which may eventually lead to the formation of tumors in the lining of the lungs (pleura) or abdominal cavity (peritoneum).

Pleural (lung) malignant mesothelioma is the most common type of the disease, representing about 75 percent of cases. Peritoneal (abdomen) is the second most common type, consisting of about 10 to 20 percent of cases. Approximately 1 percent of cases are of the pericardial (heart) variety. In rare cases, the lining of the testicles can be affected, representing less than 1 percent of cases.

Symptoms of malignant mesothelioma cancer are so mild that few people notice or recognize them, and many don’t experience any of them until later stages of the cancer. Fatigue and slight pain around the tumor may surface in early stages. Late-stage symptoms include shortness of breath, chronic pain near the tumor, weight loss, fluid buildup or bowel obstruction.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the U.S., and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists it as “the greatest health risk for American asbestos workers.” The Environmental Working Group estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 asbestos-related lung cancer fatalities have occurred each year over the span of the last two decades.

Unlike mesothelioma, the risk of lung cancer is greater among smokers exposed to asbestos. The effect of smoke and asbestos drastically weakens the lungs and makes smokers with past exposure more likely to develop lung cancer.


Asbestosis is a serious progressive, long-term, non-cancer disease of the lungs. Asbestosis is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate and inflame lung tissues, causing the lung tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard to breathe and difficult for oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass through the lungs. Asbestosis generally progresses slowly. The latency period for the onset of asbestosis is typically 10-20 years after the initial exposure. The disease can vary from asymptomatic (no symptoms) to disabling and potentially fatal.

Signs and Symptoms of asbestosis can include:

  • Shortness of breath is the primary symptom
  • A persistent and productive cough (a cough that expels mucus)
  • Chest tightness
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • A dry, crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling.

In the later stages of development, other complications may arise, including:

  • High Blood Pressure – asbestosis can destroy the lungs’ blood vessels and may lead to high blood pressure in the arteries near the lungs.
  • Heart Disease – as the blood pressure increases, the heart will have to work harder to pump blood. Eventually, the heart may weaken and fail.
  • Other Lung Complications – the presence of asbestos fibers in the lungs can cause thickening of lung membranes (pleural membranes), the formation of calcium deposits or plaques, and the accumulation of fluids in the lungs.
  • Cancers – asbestosis can elevate the risk of developing serious, related cancers, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Associated Cancers

Aside from mesothelioma and lung cancer, asbestos has been associated with a number of other cancers. This includes laryngeal, gastrointestinal, colorectal, breast, prostate, gallbladder, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, ovarian, leukemia, and kidney cancers. Research is still determining the extent to which asbestos can cause these other types. Currently, epidemiologic studies do not clearly support a consistent relationship between non-respiratory cancers and asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Bans, Laws, and Regulations

U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos

Corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper, and flooring felt are banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): Banned Manufacture, Importation, Processing and Distribution in Commerce of Certain Asbestos-containing Products. Asbestos is also banned for use with spray-on application of materials containing more than 1% asbestos to buildings, structures, pipes, and conduits unless certain conditions are met.

In addition, the regulation continues to ban the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as “new uses” of asbestos.

Protecting Workers from Asbestos

Workers can be exposed to asbestos fibers during activities that disturb asbestos-containing materials during home or building construction, renovation or demolition.

With respect to the protection of workers from the potential harm from exposure to asbestos, the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), part of the Department of Labor, each have regulatory responsibility. OSHA is responsible for establishing standards to protect the health and safety of workers who may be exposed to asbestos in the work place. The EPA is responsible for protecting state and local employees who may be exposed to asbestos from their jobs in states without an OSHA-approved state occupational safety and health plan who may be exposed to asbestos from their jobs.

Asbestos in Schools and all Public and Commercial Buildings

Pursuant to the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), the Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools rule requires local education agencies, including public school districts and non-profit private schools, such as charter schools and schools affiliated with religious institutions, to inspect their school buildings for asbestos-containing building material, prepare asbestos management plans and perform asbestos response actions to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards.

Also, the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA) extended funding for the asbestos abatement loan and grant program for schools. ASHARA also directed EPA to increase the number of training hours required for the training disciplines under the Asbestos Model Accreditation Plan (MAP) and to expand the accreditation requirements to cover asbestos abatement projects in all public and commercial buildings in addition to schools.

How to Prevent and/or Respond to exposure

If there is a possibility you may be exposed to asbestos at work, such as during the renovation of old buildings, you should use all protective equipment, work practices, and safety procedures designed for working around asbestos. If you are concerned about asbestos exposure in your workplace, discuss the situation with your employee health and safety representative or your employer. If needed, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for health and safety regulations in most workplaces, can provide more information or make an inspection.

If you live in an older home, there may be asbestos-containing insulation or other materials. A knowledgeable expert can check your home to determine if there is any asbestos and if it poses any risk of exposure. This may involve testing the air for asbestos levels. If asbestos needs to be removed from your home, you should hire a qualified contractor to perform this job to avoid contaminating your home further or causing any exposure to your family or to the workers. You should not attempt to remove asbestos-containing material yourself.

If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos is it very important to tell your doctor. Most people don’t show any signs or symptoms of asbestos related disease for 10 to 20 years or more after exposure. However, tell your doctor if you start to have symptoms that might be related to asbestos exposure such as shortness of breath, a new or worsening cough, pain or tightness in the chest, trouble swallowing, or unintended weight loss. See your doctor promptly for any respiratory illness.

Also, if you’ve been exposed in workplace, public or private school, or another source beyond your control, it is important to contact an asbestos attorney immediately to protect your legal rights to compensation.

Contact Our West Virginia Asbestos and Mesothelioma Attorneys

The asbestos and mesothelioma attorneys at Colombo Law, represent clients throughout West Virginia. Our firm offers free initial consultations on asbestos and mesothelioma cases.

The asbestos and mesothelioma lawyers at Colombo Law are aggressive, responsible and caring. We put the client first in everything we do. If you or a family member has become ill due to the exposure to asbestos in the workplace, public or private school, or another source beyond your control, please contact our asbestos and mesothelioma lawyers for a free initial consultation. Our attorneys can be reached at 304-599-4229, or by e-mail.