What Happens When Asbestos is Inhaled or Swallowed

Views: 8626

I breathed in asbestos dust now what? Asbestos is a group of minerals that occurs naturally in the earth. The most common forms are chrysotile and amphibole asbestos. Asbestos is useful in many industrial and construction applications because of its strength and fire resistance. But inhaling or swallowing microscopic asbestos fibers can cause devastating diseases, including mesothelioma. (Lung.org)

Asbestos-related diseases kill thousands of Americans per year. It is estimated that past asbestos exposure killed nearly 40,000 Americans in 2016 alone, according to a study by the International Commission of Occupational Health.

Dangers of Asbestos Exposure

If you have been exposed to asbestos, it is important to know what happens to your body when it is inhaled or swallowed: (Cancer.org)

Inhaling Asbestos

Most exposure to asbestos comes from inhaling it. This often occurs during the mining and processing of the mineral, while making products that contain asbestos, or when installing insulation that contains asbestos. It also can happen when old buildings are torn down or renovated. The invisible, jagged, fibers can be breathed into the lungs where they trapped in mucous membranes in the nose and throat.

These may be expelled, but some may burrow deep nto the lung tissue.  Over the years, scarring and inflammation can occur, which may lead to genetic mutations. The genetic mutations can cause certain cells to grow out of control, and pleural mesothelioma develops. (EHS.Oregonstate.edu)

Note that you could be exposed to high levels of asbestos and be unaware of it, as much of the dust is microscopic. Some workers had no idea they were exposed to asbestos until years later when they develop mesothelioma.

Swallowing Asbestos

Asbestos can be swallowed during work, or consumed in contaminated food or liquids. It also can happen if people cough up inhaled asbestos and swallow it. Swallowed asbestos can cause peritoneal mesothelioma in the abdomen. It is believed that swallowing asbestos may lead to rare pericardial mesothelioma, although it is unknown how this occurs.

How Much Asbestos Exposure Is Dangerous?

No amount of exposure to asbestos is safe. People should always use protective gear when handling asbestos to avoid it being inhaled or swallowed. But it is known that most cases of mesothelioma and asbestosis occur after years of regular asbestos exposure. (Asbestos.com)

For instance, a worker who handled asbestos insulation for years in the 1950s and 1960s is at serious risk of developing mesothelioma. Even if the worker only was exposed a few days here and there, a few months of exposure would add up to a large quantity of inhaled or swallowed asbestos dust.

Most cases of mesothelioma are traced back to occupational asbestos exposure that occurred over months or years.

Family members who were exposed to asbestos dust on their loved one’s clothes also were at high risk; this is called secondhand asbestos exposure. It is common for family members who handle the worker’s clothes to inhale or swallow asbestos dust over the years.

One-Time Exposure to Asbestos

If you have inhaled asbestos one time, this is not thought to be a serious risk, unless there were large toxic clouds visible in the air. Most mesothelioma is caused by months or years of asbestos exposure.

If you inhaled asbestos for a day, the risk depends on the level of dust you inhaled:

  • Was the asbestos damaged or crumbly? If so, you almost certainly inhaled billions of invisible fibers, some of which may have gotten trapped in your lungs.
  • Was the asbestos scraped, smashed, drilled, or sawed? These factors also could lead to high levels of exposure.
  • Did the area have poor ventilation? Poorly ventilated spaces tend to cause higher amounts of asbestos to be inhaled.

If you think you inhaled asbestos dust and did not take safety precautions, you probably did inhale a lot of asbestos dust. But a one-time exposure probably will not have an effect on your health. That said, you should tell your doctors that you were exposed to asbestos on a limited basis. They can keep an eye on your medical condition over time to see if you show any signs of an asbestos-related illness.

What Are The Risk Factors For Asbestos-Related Diseases?

There are several factors that will determine whether the amount of asbestos you inhaled or swallowed will cause a health problem:

  • Asbestos dose: The worst exposure happens when the air is thick with asbestos dust. This is extreme exposure that means a lot of asbestos fibers were inhaled where they may do physical and genetic damage over time.
  • How long you were exposed: Working in a contaminated environment for months is a serious risk factor.
  • Asbestos type: Chrysotile asbestos is the most dangerous.
  • Genes: Not everyone who was heavily exposed to asbestos gets mesothelioma. Researchers think some people are genetically predisposed to asbestos-related diseases.
  • Smoking: If you smoke and were exposed to asbestos, you have a higher chance of cancer.

However, much asbestos you inhaled, these diseases take at least 20 years to develop in most cases. When you first get mesothelioma, you may feel like you have a chest cold, with symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing, and pain in the side or chest.

Being exposed to asbestos in any quantity is a risk. But if your exposure was intense only one time, the chances of getting mesothelioma is low.


Inhaling asbestos dust is extremely hazardous, and thousands of people have died from mesothelioma by doing so. If you know you were exposed and breathed in or swallowed asbestos, inform your doctor about your exposure. He can conduct regular health screenings by doing annual X-rays and medical examinations to check for any signs of an asbestos-related disease.