"Asbestos" refers to a group of minerals that are made up of thin fibers. These fibers are heat resistant, which made them attractive to manufacturers of many products, including insulation, roofing and flooring, among many other items. Although asbestos is used much less frequently since associated health risks have been recognized, it was once used widely. Many people were exposed to asbestos in their jobs or homes and some by family members' clothing that carried the fibers home from their workplaces. Asbestos fibers remain in the lungs for a long time, causing inflammation, which can develop into cancer.
Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma (a rare cancer affecting the lining of the lung or abdomen). This exposure can cause non-cancerous lung problems as well, including asbestosis, pleural thickening and pleural effusions (fluid collection between the lining of the lung and the chest wall). These diseases can take 10 to 40 years after exposure to develop, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact time of exposure. Risk tends to be higher the longer or more intense the exposure, though asbestos-related illnesses are also seen in people with minimal exposure.
Though you cannot change your past exposure, you can be aware of the risks and make your healthcare providers aware of your exposure history. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure further increases risk, so don't smoke or work on quitting if you do. Learn more about asbestos exposure and cancer, symptoms to report to your healthcare provider, and tests used to detect asbestos-related lung damage from the National Cancer Institute.