The use of asbestos dropped significantly in recent decades, yet the threat of asbestos exposure is real.
Beware of the risk. No amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe. Taking precautions against occupational exposure remains critical today.
Many asbestos containing materials are banned in the United States — making new construction much safer now — but asbestos continues to be used legally in roofing materials and coatings, vinyl floor tiles, cement sheets, pipeline wrap and millboard.
Older construction remains full of asbestos products which have aged and are more dangerous than ever. Renovations, remodeling projects or even a demolition can become a health risk because of the ubiquitous use of asbestos in commercial and residential structures throughout much of the 20th century.
Once coveted for its ability to strengthen and resist heat, asbestos becomes dangerous as it ages, deteriorates and is disturbed.
Although the immediate danger may seem minimal, the microscopic fibers can be unknowingly inhaled or ingested and become lodged in the thin membrane surrounding the lungs or abdomen.
Over many years, they will cause inflammation and scarring, which can lead to serious respiratory illnesses, including asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer.
The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine estimated recently that more than 1 million construction industry workers are still at risk for occupational asbestos exposure.
Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, roofers, cement workers, and even building inspectors all are at risk if the proper precautions are not taken in today’s construction industry.
“You have to live with the legacy of the past, and the legacy here is all the asbestos still in place,” said epidemiologist Marty Kanarek, professor of population health sciences and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Asbestos is still the most frightening thing in environmental epidemiology. It’s been an unbelievable scourge.”
Job site standards today are designed to minimize the release of microscopic asbestos fibers.
Asbestos dust can be spread easily on a jobsite, exposing even those who don’t handle it directly, so caution is important. Even worse is the prospect of exposing family members by bringing asbestos dust home on tools, clothes or hair.
Tips to help avoid it:
- Isolate the area where asbestos is being disturbed to avoid spreading any toxic fibers.
- Ventilate the work area well.
- Wet down any asbestos materials being disposed or disturbed.
- Use proper protective gear — a respirator possibly — if asbestos is present.
- Encourage prompt cleanup and disposal of asbestos contaminated debris.
- Leave work clothing at the job site, making sure it is cleaned by an asbestos contamination crew that is trained to do so.
- No dry shoveling or sweeping of dust during the cleanup process.
Proper asbestos abatement methods should be followed. A licensed abatement company should be used.
If you suspect aging asbestos in a home or business, contact a certified expert to evaluate the situation. Asbestos typically is not a problem if undisturbed or still in good condition. Use an expert to carefully remove it before starting any projects.
Asbestos products are in ceilings, walls, insulation, caulking, cement, floor tiles, plumbing and electrical equipment.
It’s easy to ignore the warnings because asbestos-related illnesses can take decades to develop. That’s why companies were so slow to stop using it, despite the toxicity that already was well known.
Hundreds of commercial construction materials once contained asbestos. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still believes that asbestos products remain in the vast majority of commercial structures in America.
Tim Povtak is a content writer for the Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com.