Years ago, asbestos was praised as a miracle mineral. It appeared to solve a construction need for fire and heat-resistant materials. The mineral’s durability led to finding more and more uses for it, and suddenly it was seemingly everywhere.
Asbestos was used in construction in everything from cement compounds to roofing materials, in the automotive industry, in shipbuilding and throughout the military, and even in various consumer products. Until the 1970s, the health risks associated with asbestos weren’t really known. Today it’s recognized as a carcinogen and its use is strictly regulated. But still many people remain unaware of asbestos and its dangers.
Global Asbestos Awareness Week, which runs April 1—April 7, is a time to focus on raising awareness for this toxin, joining together to advocate for a ban, and promoting better prevention. In observance of this week, we’re answering some of the most frequently asked questions about asbestos.
Is asbestos banned in the United States?
Unfortunately, no! Upon learning asbestos is a known carcinogen, many people are completely surprised the United States has yet to ban its use. At least 58 other countries have banned the use of asbestos, with Canada recently committing to a full ban on the toxin by 2018.
The U.S. had taken some measures to ban the toxin in the past. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which originally passed in 1976, banned the use of many asbestos-containing materials. In 1989, the EPA issued another ruling that would ban most asbestos products, but it was ultimately overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. This allowed manufacturers to continue making products containing asbestos that had “established use” prior to the rule. Certain new products can contain up to 1% of asbestos.
Last November, the EPA announced they would be evaluating asbestos as a dangerous chemical following the passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The Lautenberg Act amended the TSCA and gave the EPA the power to evaluate high risk substances that pose a hazard to the environment and our health. This is a step in the right direction to hopefully ban asbestos for good.
What are the health risks of asbestos?
If asbestos is undamaged and in good shape, it does not pose an immediate health risk. But if the toxin becomes disturbed in some way, the fibers release into the air. The fibers are microscopic, and can easily be inhaled or ingested . Over time, they can become lodged in the linings of the lungs, abdomen or heart. The human body is unable to break down the fibers, and eventually the fibers can cause tumors and develop into mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma isn’t the only disease caused by asbestos exposure. It can also cause asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural effusion and other diseases. Because of the latency period after exposure—which can be anywhere from 10-50 years—and the nonspecific nature of the symptoms, mesothelioma is extremely difficult to diagnose.
Though it’s a rare cancer with only about 3,000 new cases each year, it’s estimated that 20 million people in the U.S. will develop the disease at some point in their lives. It’s often not found until it’s already developed into a more advanced stage with fewer treatment options available, making early detection critical.
Where can I find asbestos?
Though asbestos isn’t so widely used these days, it can still be found in buildings and various products. Older homes and buildings built before the 1980s have a higher risk of containing the toxin. Since it was used in so many aspects of construction, it could be found almost anywhere in the home! If you’re about to start a do-it-yourself project or have renovations done, you should have an asbestos professional check for any potential danger.
People who work in certain occupations face a higher risk of being exposed to asbestos, like construction workers, mechanics, and firefighters. Asbestos was also widely used throughout the military branches. Veterans unfortunately make up about one-third of mesothelioma diagnoses.
Asbestos can also be found in some schools, so it’s good to be aware of when your child’s school was built and ensure the proper safety precautions are being taken.
If asbestos is in my home, can I remove it myself?
Asbestos should always be handled by a professional. An asbestos inspector can determine if there is asbestos in your home and if it poses a threat to your health. If the asbestos is in good condition, it is likely it can be left untouched. If asbestos is present, it’s important to keep an eye out for any later damage to these asbestos-containing materials, like crumbling walls.
If the asbestos needs to be removed or encapsulated, the inspector can recommend an asbestos abatement professional. Removing and disposing of asbestos is not a simple procedure to handle on your own. There are strict laws in place for how asbestos needs to be handled and disposed of on local, state, and federal levels.
An asbestos professional will be able to seal or remove the toxin from your home safely and know the regulations for its proper disposal.
Better Education, Better Prevention
Take the time to educate yourself and your family on asbestos and its dangers. These asbestos-related diseases are preventable, so better awareness could mean saving a life. Until we finally see a ban, we all should be more vigilant to prevent exposure.