What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is the name given to six minerals with long, thin fibers found in rocks and soil, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asbestos has been used in hundreds of products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The mineral has been used in a wide range of manufactured goods, building materials (roofing shingles, siding, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products), friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts), heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, gaskets, and coatings. It was used in machinery such as pumps and valves, and it was used in laboratories.
Types of Asbestos
There are two main types of asbestos, according to the American Cancer Society: chrysotile and amphibole.
Found around the world, chrysotile comes from serpentinite rocks. It’s known as white asbestos and is found in 95 percent of the products made with asbestos in the U.S., according to Authenticated U.S. Government Information. It’s most often found in outbuildings, warehouses, and garages. Because of its ability to be woven into fabric, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme states it has been found in:
- Brake pads and clutch plate
- Building products
- Laboratory products
- Gaskets and packing
The other 5 percent of asbestos is amphibole asbestos and includes the fibrous forms of actinolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, amosite (grunerite), and crocidolite (riebeckite). These fibers are straight and needle-like.
How and Why was Asbestos Used?
Asbestos was widely used in many products and building materials during much of the 20th century. Asbestos is still not completely banned in the U.S. Thirty-three million houses and businesses in the U.S. contain asbestos, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Most people who develop mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos on the job or during military service. Some were exposed in their own homes. Families of workers who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace are also at risk. Asbestos fibers often clung to the clothing and hair of workers, then fell off at home, exposing family members to the risk of mesothelioma.
Common household and automobile products that used asbestos include:
- Ceiling tile
- Floor tiles
- Brakes and clutches
- Boilers and furnances
- Joint compounds
Renovation and demolition projects can disturb the asbestos.
Asbestos was one of the primary ingredients in many industrial products including:
- Joint compounds
- Pipe insulation
- Electrical equipment
There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
How Can I Be Exposed to Asbestos?
During installation, repair, replacement, or demolition, asbestos fibers can become airborne. It may also be released into water through erosion of natural deposits or, corrosion from asbestos pipes, or roofing materials containing asbestos that go into the sewer. Asbestos fibers are especially dangerous when disturbed and become airborne. When the fibers are inhaled, they become permanently lodged in the lungs and other organs, sometimes for decades, before causing health problems. There is NO safe level of asbestos. Even small amounts of asbestos fiber and infrequent exposure create a risk for developing a serious illness.
Major health effects associated with asbestos exposure include: mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer found in the thin lining of the lung, abdomen and heart; lung cancer; and asbestosis, a chronic, non-cancerous disease of the lungs.
The most common occupations with asbestos exposure include:
- Plumbers and Pipefitters
- Carpenters, Welders, and Painters
- Aircraft Mechanics
- Navy Yard Workers
- Merchant Marine Seamen
- Navy Veterans
Secondhand exposure to asbestos is also possible — fibers can be carried from workers’ clothing, skin, or hair to the home and then inhaled by others in the household.
Asbestos in the Military
Asbestos was widely used in equipment on Navy ships, Army tanks, and Air Force aircrafts. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, there are nearly 22 million military veterans in the U.S. Of those, about 5.5 million now suffer from some form of disability. Thousands of these veterans are suffering from mesothelioma or asbestosis, caused by years of exposure to asbestos during their military service.
Although mesothelioma is a rare disease with close to 3,000 new cases reported annually in the U.S., statistics show military veterans account for over one-third of those cases. The disease has a long incubation period — as long as 15 to 60 years. Many veterans over the age of 60 are now showing symptoms of mesothelioma, despite having finished their military service in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines decades ago.
How Can Asbestos Exposure be Avoided?
If you’re not sure if something is asbestos, assume it is until verified otherwise, suggests OregonState.edu. If at work, report asbestos as soon as possible to the health and safety representative or your employer. Now, OSHA can provide more information or make an inspection to determine if there is asbestos and if it poses a risk. This may involve testing the air for asbestos levels.
With asbestos-containing materials, never:
- Attempt to remove or sample yourself
If you find any form of asbestos has been dislodged, this needs to be cleaned up immediately by asbestos abatement workers. Hire a qualified contractor to perform this job to avoid contaminating your home further or causing any exposure to your family or to the workers.
How Can I Identify Asbestos?
Asbestos is identified with a specified microscope, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. If you think a material contains asbestos, have it sampled by a qualified professional. Professionals have federal government training or certification courses. Some states have consulting agencies, individual consultants and inspectors to conduct an asbestos survey in public buildings, with contractors who remove asbestos. State and local health departments or EPA regional offices may have listings of licensed professionals in each area.
Should I Repair and Remove Asbestos?
If asbestos is found, the two types of corrections are containment or removal, which should be done by professionals.
Containment usually involves sealing or covering the material, states the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Removal should be considered as the option for most situations. This is recommended when containment is not an option. It’s complex and can only be done by a professional because improper removal increases the risk of fiber release.
What is an Asbestos Professional?
There are two main types of accredited asbestos professionals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency: inspectors and contractors.
Asbestos inspectors can assess conditions, take samples of questionable material for testing, and suggest what corrections should be made in a home or building. If asbestos is contained or removed, inspectors can make sure proper procedures are followed, including clean up, and can inspect the air for asbestos fibers.
Asbestos contractors can contain or remove asbestos materials. Federal law does not require persons who inspect, contain, or remove asbestos-containing materials in detached single-family homes to be trained and accredited; however, some states and localities do require this. For safety, homeowners should ensure that workers they hire to handle asbestos are trained and accredited.
What Should I do Before I Hire an Asbestos Abatement Professional?
1. Check the inspector or contractor’s credentials carefully.
Although some states and localities require asbestos inspectors and contractors in detached single-family homes to be trained and accredited, federal law does not. For safety, homeowners should require proof that workers are trained and accredited. Each worker in your home should provide proof of training and licensing.
2. Avoid conflicts of interest.
The inspector should not be connected with an asbestos-correction firm, suggests the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Two unaffiliated firms ensure there is no conflict of interest.
3. Ask for references from previous clients.
Contact those clients, and find out if they were satisfied. The CPSC warns that there have been reports of firms incorrectly claiming asbestos materials in homes must be replaced that wastes homeowner’s money.
4. Ask whether the professional has handled similar situations.
Firms have encouraged improper methods, states the CPSC, risking the health of the homeowners and their family.
5. Ask if the firm has had any safety violations.
Check with your local environmental expert, the local agency responsible for worker safety, and the Better Business Bureau. Find out if there are legal actions filed against it.
6. Get cost estimates from several professionals; costs can vary.
7. Get a written contract.
The contract should specify the
- Work plan
- Applicable federal, state, and local regulations which the contractor must follow (such as notification requirements and asbestos disposal procedures)
What Should the Asbestos Inspector Do?
The inspection should include a complete visual examination and collection of lab analysis of samples.
The inspector should describe the location and extent of damage in a written evaluation and recommend correction or prevention. The inspector may recommend and perform checks after the work to assure the area has been properly cleaned.
What Should the Asbestos Corrective Professional Do?
The contractor and workers must use proper equipment such as wearing approved respirators, gloves, and other protective clothing.
Find out what the regulations are from your state and local health departments, EPA’s regional office, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regional office. Be sure the contractor follows local asbestos removal and disposal laws.
- The contractor should clearly mark the hazard area and seal it from the rest of the houseand also turn off the heating and air conditioning system.
- Household members and pets shouldn’t enter the area until work is completed.
- Assure the contractor cleans the area well with wet mops, wet rags, sponges, or HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) vacuum cleaners. Get written assurance that all procedures have been followed. Air monitoring may be necessary to assure that the contractor’s job is done properly.
What Should I Do to Help?
Simply put, don’t do anything.
Do not disturb any asbestos by:
Where Can I find Accredited Asbestos Abatement Professionals Near Me?
State and local health departments or EPA regional offices have the most up-to-date listings of accredited professionals in New York.
What Should I do if I Was Exposed to Asbestos?
Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos gets an asbestos-related disease.
If you think you were exposed, schedule an appointment with your doctor, suggests Cancer.org. Some doctors recommend regular chest x-rays or CT scans and lung function tests. These tests don’t detect asbestos fibers but can detect early signs of lung disease caused by asbestos.
Ask him if you should get regular health checkups. Look for doctors experienced with asbestos-related diseases.
The most common test used to learn if you have been exposed to asbestos is a chest x-ray. The x-ray cannot detect the asbestos fibers themselves but can detect early signs of lung disease caused by asbestos. Other tests, such as lung scanning and CAT scanning, are also useful in detecting changes in the lungs.
Tell your doctor of any symptoms that might be related to asbestos exposure, such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Any respiratory illness
- A new or worsening cough
- Pain or tightness in the chest
- Trouble swallowing
- Unintended weight loss
Health Effects of Asbestos Around The World
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), asbestos causes approximately half of all deaths from occupational cancer. More than 125 million people worldwide have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace. In addition, WHO reports more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure.
Organizations from across the globe joined in 2012 to call for “a global ban on the mining, use, and export of all forms of asbestos.” A committee of scientists from 13 epidemiology societies issued the statement after confirming “that all types of asbestos fiber are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death.” The group specifically cited mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis as debilitating diseases caused by exposure to the toxic mineral.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance System (eWoRLD)
- National Cancer Institute, Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration, Asbestos
- U.S. Census Bureau, Veterans
- World Health Organization, Global mesothelioma deaths reported to the World Health Organization between 1994 and 2008
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Protect Your Family from Asbestos-Contaminated Vermiculite Insulation
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and National Institutes of Health, 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC)