Asbestos has been detected in indoor and outdoor air, soil, drinking water, and food.1 It can be released from rocks and soil by natural weathering processes or human activities, such as mining and construction, and enters our bodies when we inhale or ingest the tiny fibres (Figure 1). The effect on human health depends upon the fibre concentrations and the length of time the individual is exposed to the fibres.
Although the potential for exposure is diminishing with the decline of asbestos mining and the elimination of many asbestos products, asbestos is still found in many places. People who are at greatest risk of exposure to asbestos today include asbestos miners and construction or demolition workers. From the 1950s to the 1980s, many workers alive today were exposed regularly to asbestos and the effects on their health are only being felt now, many years after exposure. When this happens, we call the years between the onset of exposure and detectable disease the latency period [video].
- 1. Asbestos photograph used in icon courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey