What Is Asbestos? Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring mineral fibers found in rock. It is usually white, and its matted fibers can be crumbly if disturbed or if it deteriorates. Its strength and fire-retardant capabilities propelled asbestos use into many industries, especially construction, where it was used widely as a building material in homes and other buildings.
If asbestos remains intact and undisturbed, it poses no immanent health risk. However, if asbestos fibers are released into the air, then exposure becomes a concern. When you inhale large amounts of asbestos fibers, they can become lodged in your lungs, remain there, and cause scarring and inflammation. Regular or long periods of exposure to high levels of airborne asbestos fibers can be seriously harmful to your health.
The diseases associated with prolonged asbestos exposure are well documented. They include:
- Mesothelioma – a rare cancer exclusively associated with asbestos, that affects the lining of the chest and/or stomach.
- Asbestosis – a disease that causes scarring in the tissues of the lungs and pleural cavity. It can be managed, but not cured.
- Lung cancer – a lung cancer caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) caused by asbestos are rare, but deadly.
These dangerous diseases can be avoided. By understanding where asbestos may still be found and what to do if it is located in your home, workplace, or school, you can reduce the risk of exposure.
Is Asbestos Still a Problem in the United States? Since the late 1970s, the United States has passed regulations limiting asbestos use. These regulations ban asbestos use in situations where it could become airborne, require routine inspections to ensure any existing asbestos material is intact and undamaged, and establish guidelines to ensure asbestos particles aren’t released during use.
There has been a significant decline in asbestos usage in the U.S. However, products and buildings manufactured and built prior to government regulations contain asbestos. This includes, for example, older homes, schools, and commercial buildings. Many of these structures need renovation or demolition, and if they were built before regulatory requirements were in place, it is highly likely that asbestos is present.
Aging public school buildings in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have made recent headlines for this reason. It might be tempting to assume that governmental regulatory efforts have eradicated the threat, but this is not the case. First, a total ban on asbestos use failed to take effect, which means that asbestos use – though heavily regulated – has continued to some extent. Second, there are hundreds of older buildings still in active use today that contain asbestos.
But buildings aren’t the only source of concern. Johnson & Johnson has been plagued by lawsuits for decades due to the presence of asbestos in their talcum powder. They have recently announced – after an 8.9-billion-dollar settlement – that cornstarch, not talc, will be used in the manufacture of their famous baby powder. Also, the cosmetics industry has tested positive for the presence of asbestos in products such as powder compacts, finishing powders, eye shadows, blushes, foundations, creams, deodorants, feminine hygiene products, and soap.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is renewing efforts to ban asbestos use entirely in the U.S. Small victories have accompanied their efforts, but you will want to stay informed and understand how to stay safe in the meantime. Even if a ban is successful, the presence of asbestos in older buildings and/or supplies remains a threat.
How Can I Keep Myself and My Family Safe? If you live in an older home and you suspect the presence of asbestos, call a professional. Asbestos professionals are trained in handling asbestos material. Asbestos professionals can conduct home inspections, take samples of suspected material, assess its condition, and advise about what corrections are needed and who is qualified to make these corrections. Material in good condition need not be sampled unless it is likely to be disturbed. Professional correction or abatement contractors repair or remove asbestos materials.
If you are concerned about a commercial building or school, remember that asbestos containing materials that are in good condition will likely not pose a threat. However, if there are deteriorating conditions, such as leaky ceilings or crumbling sheetrock, this could be cause for concern. You can contact the building administrator and request a copy of their asbestos management plan. This report should detail when the last asbestos inspection occurred and if exposed asbestos materials were found. The plan will also designate an asbestos contact person and provide contact information.
Asbestos is still present in many of the buildings and products we use. But you can keep yourself and your family safe by staying informed and by partnering with a local asbestos professional if you need help.