How might I be exposed to asbestos?
Asbestos minerals are widespread in the environment. They may occur in large natural deposits, or as contaminants in other minerals. For example, tremolite asbestos may occur in deposits of chrysotile, vermiculite, and talc. Asbestos may be found in soil that is formed from the erosion of asbestos-bearing rock.
You are most likely to be exposed to asbestos by breathing in asbestos fibers that are suspended in air. These fibers can come from naturally occurring sources of asbestos or from the wearing down or disturbance of manufactured products including insulation, automotive brakes and clutches, ceiling and floor tiles, dry wall, roof shingles, and cement. However, these products do not always contain asbestos.
Low levels of asbestos that present little, if any, risk to your health can be detected in almost any air sample. For example, 10 fibers are typically present in a cubic meter (fibers/m³) of outdoor air in rural areas. (A cubic meter is about the amount of air that you breathe in 1 hour.) Health professionals often report the number of fibers in a milliliter (mL) (equivalent to a cubic centimeter [cm³]) of air rather than in a cubic meter of air. Since there are one million cm³ (or one million mL) in a cubic meter, there typically would be 0.00001 fibers/mL of asbestos in air in rural areas. Typical levels found in cities are about 10-fold higher.
Close to an asbestos mine or factory, levels may reach 10,000 fibers/m³ (0.01 fibers/mL) or higher. Levels could also be above average near a building that contains asbestos products and that is being torn down or renovated or near a waste site where asbestos is not properly covered up or stored to protect it from wind erosion.
In indoor air, the concentration of asbestos depends on whether asbestos was used for insulation, ceiling or floor tiles, or other purposes, and whether these asbestos-containing materials are in good condition or are deteriorated and easily crumbled. Concentrations measured in homes, schools, and other buildings that contain asbestos range from about 30 to 6,000 fibers/m³ (0.00003–0.006 fibers/mL).
People who work with asbestos or asbestos-containing products (for example, miners, insulation workers, asbestos abatement workers, and automobile brake mechanics) without proper protection are likely to be exposed to much higher levels of asbestos fibers in air. In addition, custodial and maintenance workers who are making repairs or installations in buildings with asbestos-containing materials may be exposed to higher levels of asbestos. Since vermiculite and talc may contain asbestos, occupational workers and the general population may be exposed to asbestos when using these products.
You can also be exposed to asbestos by drinking asbestos fibers that are present in water. Even though asbestos does not dissolve in water, fibers can enter water by being eroded from natural deposits or piles of waste asbestos, from asbestos-containing cement pipes used to carry drinking water, or from filtering through asbestos-containing filters.
Most drinking water supplies in the United States have concentrations of less than 1 million fibers per liter (MFL), even in areas with asbestos deposits or with asbestos-cement water supply pipes. However, in some locations, water samples may contain 10–300 million fibers per liter or even higher. The average person drinks about 2 liters of water per day.
This information is provided courtesy of the ATSDR Information Center.