April 1st through the 7th is Global Asbestos Awareness Week, which aims to spread awareness and educate the public about the dangers of asbestos. As part of this awareness campaign, it’s important to discuss the places where this carcinogenic substance can be found and what to do if you suspect asbestos is in your home, school, work, or local community.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally-occurring mineral fibers. Asbestos fibers were found to have fire and chemical-resistant properties, so it was adapted and widely used in building materials. In the 1950s, researchers began to find links between asbestos exposure and serious health issues.
Asbestos becomes a health risk when its fibers become airborne after it’s been disturbed in some way. When inhaled, these fibers can lodge themselves into the lungs, causing scarring and abnormal cell growth, leading to a number of cancers including mesothelioma.
Asbestos can also cause asbestosis, a serious lung condition, as well as lung cancer and a number of other types of cancer.
Where Are Some Common Places to Find Asbestos?
From the 1940s through the 1970s, asbestos was commonly used in American homes, largely to help protect the home against any fire-related incidents. After researchers studied and were able to prove the harmful effects of asbestos, however, many manufacturers discontinued its use by the 1980s, though the United States has yet to put a ban on it.
Because of its fireproofing, insulating and soundproofing qualities, asbestos has been used in thousands of products, which can still be found in millions of homes today.
Common asbestos-containing products that can be found in the home include:
- Insulation materials for pipes and furnaces, and attic insulation
- Asbestos and cement shingles
- Siding and roofing tiles
- Soundproofing applications
- Plaster and joint compounds
- Some plastics, including paints and adhesives
- Casings for electrical wires
- Some floor tiles and flooring adhesives
It should be noted, however, that asbestos is generally safe if left undisturbed. If you suspect a material to contain asbestos, it is important that you don’t touch or disturb it in any way. It is especially critical to take care if you are planning to remodel or if you find any damaged building materials in your home.
Instead, you should contact a professional immediately to help you determine whether there is asbestos in your home, and to form an action plan if you do find asbestos.
Only highly-trained professionals with specialized safety equipment should ever be involved in the inspection or removal of materials that may contain asbestos.
Schools built before 1980 are very likely to contain products containing asbestos. The post-World War II boom in school construction lined up perfectly with the widespread use of building materials containing asbestos.
According to law, every school in the US is required to have a detailed asbestos management plan. In accordance with The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), schools must:
- Inspect their buildings for asbestos-containing building materials, and re-inspect at least every three years.
- Maintain an Asbestos Management Plan, detailing any buildings that contain asbestos, inspection plans, blueprints of the affected areas, and detailed descriptions of past and future steps to be taken to contain any asbestos that is found.
- Designate a contact person for any inquiries related to asbestos management.
- Ensure that any professionals performing inspections or other actions are properly trained and licensed.
- Provide training in asbestos awareness to custodial staff.
Asbestos management plans are required to be rigorous and thorough. If teachers, employees, students, parents, or legal guardians inquire about the asbestos management plan at any point, school administrators are required to release the details of the plan.
In addition, schools must present annually to parent-teacher organizations “about the availability of the school’s asbestos management plan and asbestos-related activity taking place within the school.”
The Environmental Protection Agency takes asbestos management very seriously, and has instituted strict laws that require schools to be up-to-date and vigilant about any buildings that contain or may contain asbestos.
Airborne asbestos particles can be very dangerous and these policies should not be taken lightly.
Because asbestos is a mineral fiber, it is found in nature in specific kinds of soil and rock formations. In fact, before its danger was known, there were open asbestos mines in many parts of the United States.
Through human activity or natural events, it is possible that naturally-occurring asbestos can be disturbed. Such events can cause asbestos to be released into the air, which would pose a threat for any humans that might inhale the asbestos particles.
Though naturally occurring asbestos has been found in many locations across the United States, some of the most common areas to find asbestos formations include:
- Along the Appalachian Trail near the East Coast (especially parts of Georgia, Pennsylvania and Vermont)
- Washington State
The EPA releases updated maps detailing areas that have been found to contain asbestos.
Where naturally-occurring asbestos has been found, local, state and federal agencies are required to institute procedures to contain the potentially toxic effects of airborne asbestos dust.
In some cases, this might mean installing a “cap” on a former asbestos mine, or it may require the hosing down of certain areas where asbestos might become airborne due to certain natural weathering events.
In the same way that schools are required to maintain updated inspection and action plans around suspected asbestos-containing buildings, government agencies are also required by law to keep detailed, updated records and action plans for the containment of naturally-occurring asbestos.
What If I Find or Suspect Asbestos?
While asbestos was removed from most building materials in the late 1970s, there are still millions of homes and schools that contain asbestos. One of the biggest problems with asbestos-related disease is that patients typically do not show symptoms until 10-40 years after they have been exposed. This is why it is vital for homeowners, school administrators, parents, and local governments to be extremely serious about the dangers of asbestos.
Under no circumstances should anyone who is not a trained and licensed professional go anywhere near asbestos. If asbestos is found, it should be dealt with by a licensed professional, and asbestos management procedures should be detailed and undertaken with the utmost care.