How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the term for a group of six naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals. The material is strong, heat-resistant, and an excellent electrical insulator. That’s why it was used for many years in various products, including insulation, ceiling and floor tiles, roofing shingles, cement, automobile brake components, and many others.   

But how does asbestos cause cancer? The link between asbestos and cancer is that microscopic particles from asbestos can be released into the environment, and ingesting them has been linked with cancer and other serious health conditions. While the use of asbestos has declined significantly in the U.S., people can still be exposed to asbestos in the workplace or other settings where the material hasn’t been removed.

Chrysotile asbestos

Chrysotile asbestos is also called white asbestos. Its fibers form a spiral, which is why it’s sometimes referred to by the nicknames curly asbestos and serpentine asbestos. It’s commonly used in industrial applications.

Amphibole asbestos

This type of asbestos has straight fibers of various kinds. They include crocidolite (or blue asbestos), amosite (or brown asbestos), tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite.

Can Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Yes, exposure to asbestos increases the risk of cancer. It does this by irritating cells in the throat, trachea, and bronchi of the lungs. Asbestos can also irritate the linings of internal organs. 

Stay On Top of Your Health Risk

Being health aware isn’t just about eating well or staying active. It’s also about knowing your potential risks. Our free health risk assessments are used to provide you with an evaluation of your health risk today, 5 years down the road, 10 years down the road, or for a lifetime. Take your free health risk assessment today to assess your cancer risk.

Types of Cancers Caused by Asbestos

What kind of cancer does asbestos cause? There are four main asbestos cancer types:

  • Mesothelioma. This cancer only is caused by asbestos and occurs when fibers get stuck in the linings of organs (called the mesothelium). It typically develops in the abdomen or lungs.
  • Lung cancer. When asbestos fibers get lodged in the lung tissue, lung cancer can develop. Often it takes more than 10 years for lung cancer caused by asbestos to appear. Smoking increases your risk of having what’s often referred to as asbestos lung cancer.
  • Laryngeal cancer. This cancer occurs when asbestos fibers get trapped in the tissues of the voice box on their way to the lungs. Excessive alcohol use, smoking, and exposure to other toxic substances increase your risk of laryngeal cancer. 
  • Ovarian cancer. Asbestos fibers can travel to the ovaries through the bloodstream, lymphatic system, or reproductive system and cause ovarian cancer. Asbestos-contaminated talcum powder is suspected of being one source of exposure.

Inhaling asbestos

The most common source of asbestos exposure is airborne fibers that get inhaled during activities like mining and processing asbestos, manufacturing products that contain asbestos, and installing asbestos insulation. Asbestos exposure also can occur when structures, where asbestos-containing building materials were used, get renovated or torn down. 

Swallowing asbestos

Foods and liquids can be contaminated with asbestos fibers. Consuming them is another form of exposure. People who have inhaled asbestos can also cough it up and then swallow it in their saliva. 

When to See a Doctor

If you believe you’ve had significant asbestos exposure, our providers can talk with you about types of cancer caused by asbestos and whether testing or other actions are appropriate. You can also take a free online Health Risk Assessment to learn more about your risk level or find a provider near you. 


Next Steps and Useful Resources

Find a Provider Near You
Take a Free Online Health Risk Assessment
What to Do if You’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos at Work
[PODCAST] The Importance of Cancer Screenings Post-Pandemic

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