The devastating effects of asbestos on human health prompted several U.S. federal agencies to ban many asbestos-containing materials by 1978. However, did you know that currently asbestos is not totally banned and can still be used in the manufacture of products such as cement shingles, floor tiles, wallboard, and roofing materials? Further, homes built prior to 1978 may contain asbestos in products such as insulation, textured paint, vinyl flooring tiles, pipe insulation, and artificial gas fireplace embers.
In April 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a ban on all uses of chrysotile asbestos. Although this is good news for both workers and consumers, it will likely take up to two years for the ban to take effect. In the meantime, learning how to live safely with asbestos at work and at home is essential to reducing the risk of exposure and associated health hazards.
Living With Asbestos at Work
Because the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) highly regulate asbestos use, those who work with a handful of new asbestos products are less commonly exposed than workers exposed through renovation or demolition of an old building. OSHA’s recently updated version of the Occupational Safety and Health Act expanded the requirements that companies must follow to protect workers. For example, requirements include improved respiratory protection, protective work clothing (including maintenance and disposal procedures), closer asbestos monitoring, and improved communication of hazard to employees.
In addition to federal agencies, state and local laws (which are often more stringent) are in place to protect workers from exposure in the workplace. There are unique requirements for the construction industry, especially for companies who perform asbestos remediation and removal. If your occupation or trade is involved with asbestos, follow the current administrative controls and wear the appropriate personal protective equipment as required. Also, take the initiative to protect your respiratory health in general by refraining from smoking and educating yourself about indoor pollutants and toxins, especially during the winter months ahead.
Living With Asbestos at Home
The mere presence of asbestos in your home is not hazardous. It only becomes a hazard when asbestos-containing materials are deteriorating or become disturbed through demolition or renovation. If your house was built prior to the 1980s, there is a good chance asbestos can be found in your home. For example, if your home was built between 1930 and 1950, it’s likely that the insulation used contains asbestos. Asbestos-containing materials that aren’t damaged or disturbed are not likely to pose a health risk. Usually, the best thing to do is to leave asbestos-containing material alone if it is in good condition.
If you suspect material contains asbestos, perform a visual inspection. Look for signs of wear or damage such as tears, abrasions, or water damage. Limit access to areas where damaged materials are located and do not sweep, vacuum, or otherwise disturb debris. And even though undisturbed asbestos in your home is not necessarily a health hazard, it’s best not to ignore its presence. Eventually, these structural components and materials will deteriorate or experience some degree of disturbance (from activities like routine maintenance or remodeling), which results in the formation of airborne fibers in your home. Contact a licensed and experienced professional to conduct an inspection and, possibly, testing.
Even with the hope of a total ban on asbestos manufacturing and importation, “legacy asbestos” will continue to require you to be informed about reducing the risk of exposure to this toxic substance at work and at home.