Asbestos is a group of six naturally fibrous minerals widely used until the 1970s in construction materials such as insulation and floor tiles. The fibers are best known for their fire-retardant properties, strength, and chemical resistance. Exposure can lead to health complications such as mesothelioma.
Why is Asbestos Dangerous?
Asbestos is not harmful to human health and the environment unless it is disturbed. The microscopic fibers pose a problem once airborne. Once breathed, the fibers can become lodged in your lungs, resulting in micro-tearing and the buildup of scar-like tissue in the lung called asbestosis.
Asbestosis is a progressive chronic lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos, resulting in shortness of breath, a persistent cough, loss of appetite, chest pain, and rounded fingernails and toenails. Symptoms range from mild to severe and often don’t appear until many years after continued exposure.
Most mesotheliomas are thought to be caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma is an aggressive and fatal form of cancer in the thin layer of tissue covering your organs. Although some treatments are available, a cure does not exist. Complications include trouble breathing, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and more.
Lung cancer claims the most lives when compared to other asbestos-related diseases. It has a latency period of anywhere from 15-35 years from exposure to onset of symptoms. Two types of lung cancers are most common: non-small cell and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell is more common whereas small cell is more difficult to treat.
Who is at Risk?
Those most likely to become ill from asbestos-related diseases are individuals that are exposed to asbestos regularly. This includes manufacturers of asbestos-containing materials, those who work in the mining industry, demolition workers, drywall removers, automobile workers, electricians, plumbers, and firefighters.
Living with an individual regularly exposed to asbestos will increase your risk of asbestos-related disease. Asbestos fibers may be carried home on the clothing of an exposed individual. It’s recommended that those regularly exposed to asbestos do not bring work clothes or PPE home and bath immediately.
Smokers exposed to asbestos are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma and lung cancers. According to the American Thoracic Society, smokers are 28x more likely to die from an asbestos-related illness than average. The synergistic effect gradually decreases as an individual quits smoking.
Buildings with preexisting asbestos-containing materials such as schools with old floor tiles, roof shingles, and insulations are not at risk for exposure unless the material is disturbed. Remember, asbestos does not pose a threat unless airborne. It’s recommended that qualified professionals abate asbestos-containing materials.
Testing & Abatement
Occupational asbestos exposure is determined by an 8-hour timeweighted average and a 30-minute short-term exposure test. Phase contract microscopy can accurately access fiber levels but cannot differentiate between asbestos and non-asbestos fibers. Transmission electron microscopy can but cannot quantify concentration.
Controlling asbestos exposure is the best way to mitigate risk. Engineering controls, administrative action, abatement, and PPE are all effective in controlling exposure. Using ventilation systems, showering frequently, limiting exposure, and wearing proper respiratory equipment can help control exposure.
In your home or business, it’s safe to assume that building materials contain asbestos if it was constructed before asbestos legislation in the 1970s. If you are unsure, then it is best to hire an accredited asbestos professional for an analysis. Collecting samples without the proper training can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone.
Accredited asbestos inspectors should complete asbestos testing and assessments. They can assess conditions, take samples, and provide you with advice on safe next steps. Inspectors can also follow up after abatement. They can verify proper cleanup and even sample your air quality for fibrous remnants.
You should have asbestos-containing materials abated as soon as possible if you notice damage to your home or business, such as crumbling drywall, water damage, or other disturbances. It would be best if you also had your home abated before any remodeling that would disturb building materials.
An accredited contractor will be sure to avoid tracking asbestos to other house locations, ensure proper disposal, thoroughly clean up afterward, break materials up into smaller pieces, and apply wetting agents to help airborne asbestos settle and will seal off the affected area.
Improper abatement of asbestos can result in excessive exposure to asbestos, illegal disposal of discarded material, and more. Abatement should not be attempted unless properly trained. It’s best to leave asbestos abatement up to experienced professionals with the proper accreditations.