Questions About Asbestos Exposure

man replacing a ceiling tile

Despite widespread bans and heavy federal, state, and local regulations concerning its use, asbestos is still making the headlines today. For example, a public library in Normal, Illinois is currently studying options to deal with asbestos in an older section of their building. Asbestos in older structures, known as “legacy asbestos”, continues to haunt homeowners as well as government and commercial buildings – even in areas around Denver, Colorado.

The good news is that you can avoid asbestos exposure by understanding the basics about its nature and usage. Here are some questions and answers to get you started.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals composed of soft, flexible, heat-resistant fibers. The six types of asbestos are chrysotile, actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, and tremolite. Chrysotile fibers are long, curly, and pliable (serpentine family). The other five types are short, straight, sharp, and stiff (ambhibole family). Chrysotile is the most commonly used form of asbestos.

Where is asbestos found naturally?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral deposit that is found around the world. In the U.S. asbestos deposits are located mainly in the western and eastern coastal states. For example, in California asbestos is found in serpentine rock located in the Sierra foothills, the Klamath Mountains, and the Coast Ranges. The minerals must be mined in a process known as open-pit mining in order to remove the earth’s top layer and access the mineral.

What products contain asbestos?

Because of its natural strength and fire resistance, asbestos was used widely in products such as insulation, cement, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, sheetrock, adhesives, auto parts, and shingles. Further, certain occupations have put workers at risk of repeated asbestos exposure. Some of these occupations include the manufacturing of raw asbestos, firefighting, and working in buildings with asbestos-containing materials, the construction field, power plants, or shipyards.

Why is asbestos so dangerous?

Asbestos is harmful when its fibers are released into the air, where they can be inhaled or ingested. The fibers become trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat and with repeated exposure they will migrate deep into the lungs or into the digestive tract. Once the fibers are trapped in the body, they can cause damage. Typically, asbestos-containing materials are not dangerous unless they become airborne, such as during a renovation project.

What health problems are associated with asbestos exposure?

There are three primary diseases associated with asbestos exposure: asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Asbestosis is a serious, chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer most often occurring in the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen, and (rarely) heart. This cancer is exclusively associated with asbestos exposure. Finally, lung cancer causes the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure.

If asbestos is so dangerous, why was it used so widely?

Asbestos gained popularity during the Industrial Revolution because of its insulative properties for hot things like turbines, steam pipes, ovens, and brake and clutch linings. Asbestos mining reached a peak during the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, once the dangers of repeated exposure became broadly known, production of asbestos containing materials gradually decreased. The last asbestos mine in the U.S. closed in 2002.

Is asbestos still used in manufactured products today?

Asbestos is not fully banned in the U.S. and can still be imported under certain heavily regulated conditions. Ongoing efforts to secure a complete ban on asbestos manufacturing and importation in the U.S. are promising. However, other countries, such as Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Brazil, and Zimbabwe, continue to mine the mineral.

How can I determine if there is asbestos in my home?

In homes built prior to the 1980s, its best to assume that asbestos containing materials are present. If your home is in good condition and you are not planning on renovation projects, chances for exposure are low. However, an inspection by a trained, certified, and experienced professional will put your mind at ease. They can locate any asbestos in your home and determine how to proceed safely.

How can I remain safe from asbestos exposure at my workplace?

Asbestos is highly regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Worker exposure to asbestos hazards is addressed in specific OSHA standards for the construction industry, general industry, and shipyard employment sectors. Since there are no safe levels of asbestos exposure, it is essential to follow the established safety protocols and wear required personal protective equipment.

You can help to protect yourself from asbestos-related disease by understanding how and where asbestos exposure is likely. If you have concerns about potential asbestos-containing materials in your home or office, contact a licensed and experienced asbestos professional. In addition to determining the correct course of action, you will gain peace of mind.

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