Washington State University
Environmental Health & Safety General Asbestos Awareness: Online Training

Health Risks From Exposure

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Asbestos primarily affects the human body through the lungs. Much as a tree trunk progresses to its roots, the trachea (windpipe) branches into smaller and smaller airways, finally terminating in tiny air sacs called alveoli. Healthy lungs contain hundreds of millions of these alveoli or air sacs. Oxygen in the air we breathe is transported through the walls of the alveoli into red blood cells in the small blood vessels (capillaries) that surround each alveolus.

Asbestos fibers enter the human body as airborne particles. These fibers can become embedded in the lungs. Once the fibers become trapped in the lung’s alveoli, they cannot be removed. Asbestos fibers can also enter the gastrointestinal tract by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.

Years of exposure to asbestos increase the risk of developing a number of disabling and fatal diseases including:

  • Asbestosis: Asbestosis is not cancer, but is a fibrotic lung condition like emphysema.
  • Lung cancer: Lung cancer risk from asbestos exposure is closely related to individual smoking habits.
  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the surface linings of lung or abdominal tissues.
  • Other cancers
  • Cigarette smoking increases the risk of getting these diseases!

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