Asbestos is a general name for any of a group of six different minerals. These 6 types have been identified as the following:1
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. It has been used for thousands of years, such as for making cookery and fabrics. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that its usage boomed. Because of its light weight, fire resistance, and extreme durability, it 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 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.2 The fact the percentage is so low is a good indication of how dangerous the substance 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 potential dangers. However, the real risks didn’t become widely known until the 1980s with a surge of asbestos-related diseases. There is a major controversy around its use among manufacturers since they apparently were aware of the dangers 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 the substance, particularly those working in construction, demolition, renovation, or shipyards. Military veterans who served between 1940 to 1979 are also likely to have been exposed. 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 become widely known, its use was gradually phased out. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, and European Union nations have completely banned its use. However, its use in the United States is still permitted but highly regulated by the EPA. Despite efforts to regulate and eliminate its use, it is still prevalent. By some estimates, over 700,000 public buildings (including schools) in the US contain it. When factoring in homes in the US, then there are likely more than 30 million buildings which contain the substance.
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 it could be located – such as insulation, joints, and floors. In most cases, products containing it do not necessarily put you at risk of breathing in fibers. However, if any of these products get damaged, the fibers could be released into the air where they are breathed in and put the exposed person at risk of asbestos-related diseases.
An inspector can be hired to test for asbestos in the home. In older homes, it is particularly important to test for its presence before doing any remodeling, repairs, or demolition. If you are worried about exposure in your workplace or community buildings like schools, you may also be able to arrange for a test there. Never test for it 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.
If a test confirms that it is 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 the fibers are dangerous is if they can be inhaled or ingested in some manner. However, any damaged product which contains it should be removed promptly if possible.
Homeowners should never try to remove the substance 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 dangerous fibers could enter the air. There are strict regulations for its removal including where it is disposed. Make sure that you hire a knowledgeable contractor which has experience and complies with all regulations in your state.
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