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Asbestos Health Effects and History

Asbestos fibers

History of asbestos use

Asbestos has been used in over 3,500 building materials, and can still be found in some materials sold in the United States today. Any building material made of something other than wood, metal, or glass may have asbestos. Asbestos was used in building materials because of its strength, fire and corrosion resistance, and its insulating qualities.

Asbestos-containing building materials (ACBMs) were used in every type of building system. ACBMs were used to insulate structural systems, such as beams, columns, ceilings, and walls. They were used to insulate plumbing and electrical components, as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) parts.

Health effects

When ACBMs are disturbed or in bad condition, asbestos can be released and become airborne. Asbestos fibers are very small and cannot be detected by the human eye. The fibers are needle-like. Once airborne, asbestos fibers can be easily inhaled and lodged in the lungs. The fibers do not break down or dissolve, and can scar tissue. Asbestos fibers can cause cancer.

Inhaling or ingesting asbestos can cause the following diseases:

  • Lung cancer. Lung cancer is tumor growth in the lungs. The tumors can spread to other parts of the body.

People who are exposed to asbestos and who also smoke are 50 times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers who are exposed to asbestos.

For free help quitting tobacco, call the Wisconsin Tobacco Quit Line at 1-800-QUIT NOW.  Visit the DHS Tobacco Prevention and Control Program site for more information on tobacco, Wisconsin's leading cause of preventable death.

  • Mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the thin layer of tissue that covers several internal organs, most commonly found on the lining of the lungs and chest wall.
  • Asbestosis. Asbestosis occurs when asbestos fibers get lodged in and cut the lung tissue. This leads to a build-up of scar tissue, which can then lead to shortness of breath and death.

There is no safe level of asbestos. Prevent exposure to asbestos by leaving any building materials that may contain asbestos alone (as long as they are in good condition). If they must be disturbed (e.g. due to a renovation project), or if they are in bad condition, hire a certified contractor to remove them properly.

Learn more about asbestos and the health effects of asbestos exposure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Last revised September 27, 2022