Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed to asbestos?
The most common test used to determine if you have received sustained exposure to asbestos is a chest x-ray. A chest x-ray is
recommended for detecting exposure to asbestos only in persons who have sustained relatively heavy exposure. A chest x-ray is of no value
for detecting evidence of asbestos exposure in a person whose exposure to asbestos has been only brief or transient. The x-ray cannot
detect the asbestos fibers themselves, but it can detect early signs of lung disease caused by asbestos. While other substances besides
asbestos can sometimes produce similar changes in the lungs, this test is usually reliable for detecting asbestos-related effects produced
by long-term exposures at relatively high concentrations of asbestos fibers. Other tests, such as gallium-67 lung scanning and
high-resolution computed tomography, are also useful in detecting changes in the lungs. However, there are currently no means of detecting
exposure-related effects from commonly encountered environmental exposures.
The most reliable test to determine if you have been exposed to asbestos is the detection of microscopic asbestos fibers in pieces of lung
tissue removed by surgery, but this is a very invasive test. A test can also be run to determine the presence of asbestos fibers in material
rinsed out of the lung. However, this test can cause some discomfort. Asbestos fibers can also be detected in mucus (sputum), urine, or
feces, but these tests are not reliable for determining how much asbestos may be in your lungs. Low levels of asbestos fibers are found in
these materials for nearly all people. Higher-than-average levels can show that you have been exposed to asbestos, but it is not yet possible
to use the results of this test to estimate how much asbestos you have been exposed to, or to predict whether you are likely to suffer any
health effects. Please see the toxicological profile for more information about how asbestos can be measured in people and in the
What can you do to limit your exposure to asbestos?
Most buildings, especially older ones, contain some amount of asbestos. But remember, asbestos is only a potential hazard if it is damaged
and friable, releasing fibers into the air we breathe.
If you come across something that appears to be friable asbestos, such as damaged insulation on a pipe, assume that it is asbestos, and
notify your supervisor. Do not damage or disturb the area. A sample of the material will be taken and analyzed. If it is determined to be
asbestos, it will either be removed or repaired so that it is protected and no longer releasing fibers.
If your job involves stripping or buffing floors that could be vinyl asbestos tile, this should be done infrequently, using a wet method. A soft,
non-abrasive pad should be used, and the machine should be run at low speed (below 300 rpm). Do not burnish or dry-buff flooring unless it
has sufficient finish so that the pad can’t contact the bare floor.
***Source: Holland, John P., Asbestos, Hazardous Materials Toxicology – Clinical Principles of Environmental Health, Sullivan & Krieger, 1992. OEH&S 4/97