What is asbestos, and do I still need to worry about it?

You’ve heard the term asbestos, and I’m sure you’ve heard that it’s linked to a type of cancer called Mesothelioma. But you find yourself wondering “what does that mean for me?” For the longest time, I had absolutely no idea what either of them really were, and it wasn’t until I started working at Atlantic Training that I discovered what it was, and why it’s a “thing” worth being cautious about- not just at your job, but in your home as well.

What in the ‘ell is asbestos?

Asbestos refers to a group of six types of naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos minerals are made up of fine, durable fibers and are resistant to heat, fire and many chemicals. Once called the “miracle mineral” for such properties, asbestos was used in a slew of everyday products, from building materials to fireproof protective gear [3]. The threat from the minerals is that it’s linked  to a cancer known as pleural mesothelioma, in addition to other diseases such as lung cancer or asbestosis.

Asbestos is still used in the United States to this day, but is strictly regulated and observed by the EPA.

Where does it lurk?

Photo Credit: roguedisposal.com

Photo Credit: roguedisposal.com

Though not as widely used today as it was back in the early ’70’s, asbestos can still be found in common locations. It is mostly used today in fire resistant or heat resistant products, as it does not hold any heat. Such products are protective clothing, pipe insulation, brake linings and similar materials [3]. Prior to deriving laws conducive to it’s regulation in the ’80’s, asbestos could (and can still be) found in:

  • Floor tiles
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Asbestos Cement
  • Wall panels
  • Boiler insulation
  • Electrical insulation
  • Spray-on fireproofing
  • Wallboard joint compound
  • Wall and attic insulation
  • Asbestos paper and millboard [2]

Exposure

Everyone will be exposed to asbestos as some point in their lifetime, as it is a natural occurring mineral where low-levels of it are found in the air, soil and water [2]. It will have virtually no effect on most people, but the people who are exposed to it repeatedly are the ones most at risks for it’s harmful side effects.

There are three different ways someone can be exposed to asbestos:

  1. Occupational exposure- This is pretty explanatory and also most common way to be exposed to asbestos. Occupational exposure refers to asbestos exposure through jobs typically in industries such as construction, shipyards, power plants or other hazardous work environments [3].
  2. Secondary exposure- Think second-hand smoke. In this type of exposure, asbestos remains on the clothing of those working around asbestos and can then be ingested by spouses of children.
  3. Environmental exposure- Because asbestos is a natural mineral, it can be found in natural locations particularly in parts of California and Montana [3].

Why should I be worried?

Photo Credit: mesothelioma.com

Photo Credit: mesothelioma.com

While there isn’t any reason to worry about it, it’s important that you’re cautious should you suspect asbestos in your home. If your work requires the disturbance of it, your employer must disclose to you that your worksite contains asbestos, and they are required to provide you with the proper PPE such as a respirator. Once it’s is disturbed, the micro fibers are released into the air, and upon being ingested or inhaled can become en-lodged in the soft tissue of the lungs. Once there, it can remain there for long periods of time, causing inflammation and scarring [2]. The inflammation and scarring has been linked to a cancer known as pleural mesothelioma. It has also been known to cause asbestosis (an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage) and other nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders, including pleural plaques (changes in the membranes surrounding the lung), pleural thickening, and benign pleural effusions (abnormal collections of fluid between the thin layers of tissue lining the lungs and the wall of the chest cavity). Although pleural plaques are not precursors to lung cancer, evidence suggests that people with pleural disease caused by exposure may be at increased risk for lung cancer [1]. Also, symptoms of exposure may not show up for decades, specifically 10-50 years. Scientists believe that most people exposed to asbestos throughout the years will come forward with symptoms between 2015-2020 [3]. Here are the symptoms associated with past exposure according to cancer.gov:

  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness.
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time.
  • Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs.
  • Pain or tightening in the chest.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Swelling of the neck or face.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Fatigue or anemia [1]

Limited exposure asbestos you can

In your home: Asbestos is mostly only dangerous when it’s disturbed or moved, as the micro-fibers are sent up into the air. If you have plans to remodel your home and suspect that there may be asbestos

Photo Credit: angieslist.com

Photo Credit: angieslist.com

in the walls or in another location, it’s best to hire a professional to remove it. According to asbestos.com, here are the areas in your home where there may be asbestos:

  • Attic insulation
  • Roof shingles and tar
  • Drywall and drywall glue
  • Floor tiles
  • Popcorn ceilings
  • Joint compounds
  • Wrapping on pipes and electrical wires [2]

At work: Your employer is required by law to notify you of asbestos at your worksite, and must provide the proper PPE to work around or remove it. If you are not trained to remove asbestos, then you should never attempt to remove it [2]. You can receive proper training to remove or work around it for your job.  Once you are trained, take the following steps to help prevent exposure and related health conditions:

  • Ask your employer about any asbestos health risks in your workplace
  • Never cut, saw, drill, sand, scrape or otherwise disturb asbestos-containing materials
  • Always wear proper protective gear when your work may disturb asbestos
  • Don’t bring home work clothes or shoes that may have been contaminated with asbestos
  • Don’t sweep, dust or vacuum asbestos debris
  • Always dispose of asbestos materials according to state and federal regulations [2].

So what am I looking for?

Great question, it’s almost as if I thought of it myself! Here are some images of what asbestos looks like, and where it can be found:

Photo Credit: firstwessex.org

Photo Credit: firstwessex.org

ASBESTOS2 ASBESTOS3
Photo Credit: nationaldryout.com

Photo Credit: nationaldryout.com

Photo Credit: wikihow.com

Photo Credit: wikihow.com

Photo Credit: finogenvironmental.com

Photo Credit: finogenvironmental.com

References:

[1] “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute. National Institutes of Health, 1 May 2009. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.

[2] “Mesothelioma Prevention – How to Prevent Asbestos Cancer.” Asbestos.com. The Mesothelioma Center, 2016. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.

[3] “What Is Asbestos?” Pleural Mesothelioma Center. The Peterson Firm, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.