Do you live in an old home, work in the building trades, repair cars or fight fires for a living? You might be exposing yourself — and your loved ones — to the health hazards of asbestos.

Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber known for its strength and resistance to heat, chemicals and electricity. For more than 100 years, manufacturers have included it in a variety of products, such as insulation, packaging, automobile clutches and brakes, heat-resistant fabrics, coatings and cement, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When disturbed, asbestos releases microscopic fibers into the air. If you inhale them often enough, you might eventually suffer or die from one of several possible illnesses, including:

  • Asbestosis. The lungs become inflamed and permanently scarred. There is no cure, although it can be managed, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • Lung cancer. Your risk is even greater if you're a smoker, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
  • Mesothelioma. This rare form of cancer occurs when tumors appear in the lining that covers the chest cavity, abdomen or the outside of the lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Inhaling the fibers doesn't make you sick right away. It can take years or even decades after your last exposure before symptoms start to appear.

Related: 6 Powerful Ways to Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Where you'll find it

Everyone is exposed to small amounts of asbestos. It exists in the air, water and soil.

Most people never fall ill from exposure. Many of those who do are around asbestos for long periods of time, such as construction workers, shipbuilders and firefighters, according to the National Cancer Institute. Their families also may be at risk if the worker didn't shower or change out of asbestos-covered clothes before coming home.

In the 1970s and 1990s, the federal government banned asbestos in certain types of paper, flooring felt, wall patching compounds, pipe and equipment insulation, artificial embers for gas fireplaces, and spray-on materials.

However, manufacturers can still legally add it to many products, including clothing, cement, millboard, coatings, vinyl floor tiles and auto parts, according to the EPA, though its use has dropped significantly, from 803,000 metric tons in 1973 to 2,400 metric tons in 2005, according to the National Cancer Institute.

How to protect yourself

If you find a product that contains asbestos in your home — such as pipe insulation in an old house — and it looks undamaged, your best course is to just leave it alone. It won't release fibers into the air, so long as it's in good condition and left undisturbed, the EPA says.

If it appears more than slightly damaged or you plan on remodeling, hire a specialist inspector. Also, the EPA advises:

  • Don't sweep or vacuum any of the debris yourself.
  • If you track the debris through the house, clean it with a wet mop.
  • Delay any related DIY projects and, above all, keep the kids away from it.

Be careful with certain home improvement projects. For instance, tearing up layers of wood that's covered with mastic (an adhesive), leveling compound or felt paper can break up the asbestos fibers and send them into the air.

Make sure your child's daycare has been checked for asbestos.

If you live where asbestos occurs naturally or near a former processing plant (check out this map), the CDC says to:

  • Cover your garden with asbestos-free topsoil or landscape coverings.
  • Make sure your driveway is paved or, if not, drive over it slowly.
  • Keep your house clean of outside soil and don't walk barefoot in the dirt.

Related: DIY Projects You May Want to Hire a Professional For

What to do if you've been exposed

If you think you may have inhaled asbestos fibers, visit your doctor. Do so even if the exposure occurred in the distant past. Keep an eye out for any of the following symptoms, according to the National Cancer Institute:

  • Shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • Blood in the fluid coughed up from your lungs
  • Pain or tightening in the chest
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swelling of the neck or face
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue or anemia

Related: 10 Health Symptoms Women Should Never Ignore

If you were exposed on the job a long time ago but have only recently fallen ill, getting workers compensation may be difficult, especially if your former employer has moved or gone out of business, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). Instead, many victims have turned to the courts, suing the manufacturers of asbestos products. Such suits are on the rise and costing the insurance industry an estimated $85 billion a year, according to the III.

To learn more about asbestos-related resources in your area, here's a list of contacts for state asbestos programs.

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David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.