What is asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a group of six types of naturally occurring minerals – once referred to as ‘miracle minerals’ – made up of fine, durable fibers that are resistant to heat, fire, and many chemicals. At one-point asbestos was used in various everyday products including building materials and fireproof protective gear because of these sustainable characteristics. All forms of the mineral are odorless, tasteless and cannot be detected by a visual examination. The only way to identify asbestos-containing materials (ACM) is through microscopic analysis. Around the 1980’s federal laws began severely restricting the mineral’s use.
Sources of Exposure
Asbestos fibers may be found in building materials and manufactured goods such as countertops, roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, mastic, paper and cement products, adhesives, textiles, gaskets, fireproofing, insulation and friction products such as automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts.
Asbestos exposure can cause several health problems – the most dangerous is pleural mesothelioma typically caused by one of three types of exposure:
- Occupational Exposure – Refers to encountering asbestos while on the job which occurred more frequently prior to the 1980s. Asbestos was most commonly found in jobs relating to construction, shipyards, power plants and other hazardous work environments.
- Secondary Exposure – A common exposure source for family members was the dirty clothes from workers that were exposed earlier. Asbestos would unknowingly cling to fibers in workers’ clothing from job sites and then acquire a new home amongst their family who ultimately would become exposed.
- Environment Exposure – This is an indirect exposure caused either by environmental pollution or naturally occurring asbestos. Naturally occurring asbestos deposits have been found throughout the country specifically in California and Montana. In these areas – simply outdoor activities such as gardening or riding a bicycle may disturb asbestos fibers and release them into the air where people may ingest or inhale them. Similar exposure may occur because of nearby mining or manufacturing.
When airborne asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can become lodged in the soft tissues of the lungs or abdomen for life making it difficult for the body to expel triggering more than a dozen health complications, including cancer. It is now widely known that exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma – fatal cancer that affects the lining of the lungs – as well as other cancers and lung-related illnesses. Asbestos-related illnesses account for over 10,000 deaths in the U.S. each year and can often take decades to notice. About 2,000 – 3,000 of these annual deaths – roughly one every 3.4 hours – are caused by Mesothelioma.
Current Asbestos Risks
While breathing asbestos it is unlikely to cause any immediate harm. Asbestos and asbestos-related cancers often arise many years after the first exposure. This gap between exposure and the first appearance of symptoms, known as the latency period, can range between 10 and 50 years.
Asbestos use is not banned in the U.S., but it is strictly regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Asbestos can only be used in products that have historically contained the mineral so NO ‘new uses’ are permitted. Additionally, these products can be made with asbestos only if there is no adequate substitute. The small amount that is still used annual goes into products that require fireproof and heat resistant qualities including protective clothing, pipe insulation, brake linings and similar materials.
Minimizing environmental exposure continues to be a struggle in areas with high concentrations of naturally occurring asbestos, such as El Dorado Hills, California, and Libby, Montana. Household exposure is also still an issue since so many construction products contain asbestos. This is especially true of a house built prior to the 1980s when asbestos use was most common.
Engineering practices are required to maintain exposure levels below the state permissible limits. These include:
- Isolating the source
- Negative pressure ventilation
- Exhaust and vacuum systems equipped with HEPA filters
- Use of wet methods
If you think you have been exposed to asbestos or if you may be exposed in the future, get immediate medical treatment. Early detection is crucial for effective treatment.
Safe Working Practices, Abatement & PPE
Areas, where airborne asbestos fibers are present, must be regulated and clearly marked with warning signs. If you are unsure if airborne asbestos fibers are present, notify your supervisor and stop activities until more information is available or the situation has been remedied.
The following PPE is required when airborne asbestos is present or when contact contamination is likely. Protective clothing that covers the whole body is required by law. These incudes:
- Coveralls made from material that is impervious to asbestos fibers
- Head covering
- Foot coverings
- Goggles or face shield
- Air-purifying respiration with HEP filter
- Head, food and hand coverings must be adequately taped to prevent the possibility of the skin encountering asbestos fibers
When maintenance or demolition work disturbs asbestos materials or they fall apart over time, the safest way required by law is to repair or remove the threat is to hire a trained and accredited asbestos professional. The appropriate state agency must be notified before removing or attempting to remove asbestos – if these precautions are not taken, costly fine and jail time could ensue.
Abatement workers must follow all safety precautions such as sealing off the work area and keeping asbestos-containing materials wet to help prevent asbestos dust from entering the air. When hiring an abatement crew, check with the Better Business Bureau, your local air pollution control board or safety agency and review their history of work-related safety violations or lawsuits.
Discard disposable clothing appropriately and ensure that all-reusable equipment, including your respirator, is fully cleaned, dried and properly stored. Containers of asbestos material, such as waste bins or bags, must be impermeable and labeled with warning signs. Upon disposal, waste bins should be closed and waste bags sealed.