What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a general name for any of a group of six different minerals. These 6 types of asbestos have been identified as the following:1 

  1. Chrysotile
  2. Anthrophyllite asbestos
  3. Amosite
  4. Crocidolite
  5. Tremolite asbestos
  6. Actinolite asbestos

These minerals are comprised of flexible, long fibers which can easily be manipulated into different forms or combined with other substances from cloth to drywall.  Asbestos has been used for thousands of years, such as for making cookery and fabrics. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that asbestos usage boomed.  Because of its light weight, fire resistance, and extreme durability, asbestos was used for manufacturing thousands of products. Its most attractive feature is that it’s heat and fire resistant which is why it was used so extensively in insulation. By the middle of the 20th century, asbestos was very commonly used in construction materials like concrete, insulation, bricks and flooring.

The use of asbestos is increasingly being banned because it’s apparent it presents health hazards. However, it’s not banned everywhere because of its economic usefulness. In the US the current definition of asbestos containing material is that a product contains at least 1 percent asbestos.2  The fact the percentage is so low is a good indication of how dangerous asbestos is to humans.

Dangers of Asbestos 

The thin fibers that make up asbestos can be easily inhaled and then become lodged in the lungs or their lining.  These fibers can also make it to other parts of the body, particularly the chest and abdomen cavities.. Since the body is unable to destroy the asbestos fibers, they remain in the body and potentially cause serious health problems.  Most of the health problems related to asbestos are respiratory.

Going back hundreds of years, there has been evidence of the potential dangers of asbestos.  However, the real risks of asbestos didn’t become widely known until the 1980s with a surge of asbestos-related diseases. There is a major controversy around asbestos manufacturers since they apparently were aware of the dangers of asbestos but still continued to mine for it and use it in numerous capacities.

Where Does Asbestos Exposure Occur? 

The people who are most at risk of asbestos-related diseases are those who worked in asbestos mines. Blue-collar workers were also frequently exposed to asbestos, particularly those working in construction, demolition, renovation, or shipyards. Military veterans who served between 1940 to 1979 are also likely to have been exposed to asbestos. In fact, it is estimated that over 27.5 million people were exposed to asbestos over during the decades before its dangers had been identified.3

In the 1980s when the dangers of asbestos become widely known, its use was gradually phased out.  Countries like New Zealand, Australia and European Union nations have completely banned the use of asbestos. Asbestos use in the United States is still permitted but it is highly regulated by the EPA.  Despite efforts to regulate and eliminate asbestos, it is still prevalent.  By some estimates, over 700,000 public buildings (including schools) in the US contain asbestos.  When factoring in homes in the US, then there are likely more than 30 million buildings which contain asbestos.

Testing for Asbestos 

If you live in a home which was built or remodeled before the 1990s, you may wish to test for asbestos.  There are many possible places where asbestos could be located – such as insulation, joints, and floors.  In most cases, asbestos products do not necessarily put you at risk of breathing in fibers.  However, if any of these asbestos products get damaged, asbestos fibers could be released into the air where they are breathed in and putting the exposed person at risk of asbestos-related diseases.

An asbestos inspector can be hired to test for asbestos in the home.  In older homes, it is particularly important to test for asbestos before doing any remodeling, repairs, or demolition.  If you are worried about asbestos in your workplace or community buildings like schools, you may also be able to arrange for a test there.   Never test for asbestos on your own.  If a product suspected of containing asbestos has become damaged, do not touch it and avoid the area until testing is completed.

Asbestos Removal 

If an asbestos tests confirms that there is asbestos present, you will have to decide whether and how to remove it.  The EPA does not consider asbestos-containing problems hazardous so long as they are whole and kept in good repair.  The only way asbestos fibers are dangerous is if they can be inhaled or ingested in some manner. However, any damaged product which contains asbestos should be removed promptly if possible.

Homeowners should never try to remove asbestos themselves. Instead, contact a licensed asbestos removal contractor in your local area.  The contractor may determine that a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) license is necessary for removal which means that it is likely that the asbestos could enter the air. There are strict regulations for asbestos removal including where it is disposed.  Make sure that you hire an asbestos contractor which has experience and complies to all regulations in your state.

References 

1  Powell, C. H. and  Cohrssen, B. 2001. Asbestos. Patty’s Toxicology. 

2 Dodson, R. F. and Hammar S.P. (eds) Asbestos – Risk Assessment, Epidemiology and Health Effects (2006) Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

3 Nicholson, W. J., Perkel, G. and Selikoff, I. J. (1982), Occupational exposure to asbestos: Population at risk and projected mortality-1980–2030. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 3: 259–311. doi: 10.1002/ajim.4700030305