Asbestos is common building material that is carefully regulated due to its significant health risks. Essentially, asbestos is a mineral that contains silicon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a number of positively charge metal ions called cations. The most common varieties of asbestos include amosite, chrysotile, and crocidolite. When crushed, asbestos turns into fine fibers that are too minuscule to be seen by the naked eye. These individual fibers are then mixed with a binding material that turns it into asbestos containing material (ACM), the building material commonly used in construction.
The Use of Asbestos in Construction
It was in the early 1900s when asbestos was first used in the United States to insulate steam engines. However, it wasn’t until after the World War II that the material was used for building and renovating establishments such as schools and public buildings.
A study revealed that 3,000 various types of commercial products contained asbestos. The list of products containing asbestos included roofing materials, imported cement pipes, corrugated sheets, and others. There are a number of reasons why asbestos was extensively used within the construction industry.
- Asbestos is strong yet flexible
- Asbestos does not burn and makes for an effective fire resistant
- Asbestos conducts electricity poorly but effectively insulates it
- Asbestos resists corrosion
Although asbestos was commonly used within the construction industry, it contains fibers that pose a health risk when they become damaged or disturbed. As a result, the use of asbestos in the construction industry has become largely discouraged and regulated. However any establishment built before 2000 may still contain asbestos as a prime building material.
Additionally, there are many other locations where asbestos can be found.
- Asbestos cement products
- Asbestos insulating board
- Loose asbestos in ceiling or floor cavity
- Floor tiles, textiles, and composites
- Sprayed coatings on ceilings, beams/columns, and walls
- Textured coatings
How to Identify Asbestos
To the naked eye, asbestos is virtually unseen and may not be noticed without further instrumental analysis. When dealing with materials or products suspected to contain asbestos, it’s best to assume that asbestos fibers are present unless otherwise stated. When testing for asbestos, a specific process has been outlined and regulated by the EPA to fully determine its contents. Bulk samples of the material are collected and analyzed under Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM). Through this testing technique, the asbestos found in the material can be determined according to its type and percentage. This is an effective method of determining whether the material can safely be used.
Asbestos Exposure and Health
The exposure to asbestos fibers can pile up and lead to a variety of asbestos-related diseases. When asbestos fibers are inhaled they begin to enter the body tissues. The fibers are often deposited and retained in the lung tissue and the airways. As these fibers stay inside the body, the continuous exposure of asbestos increases the risk for contracting an asbestos-related disease.
It is important to note that such diseases do not appear until several years after exposure to the material has taken place. As a matter of fact, today’s number of patients diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases were once asbestos workers from the World War II time. The health risks of asbestos increase with every exposure to the mineral.
Asbestos Exposure Levels
There has yet to be a commonly agreed upon ‘safe’ threshold level for asbestos exposure. In either case, ingesting and inhaling asbestos fibers can be potentially harmful to one’s health. Although individuals may encounter a rash after touching asbestos, there is insufficient research on the effects of asbestos exposure to human skin.
Who Are at Risk?
On a daily basis, many individuals experience small amounts of asbestos exposure. The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety has identified over 75 different types of jobs in the United States in which workers are exposed to asbestos. Asbestos becomes a danger to individuals when damaged or disturbed. This can turn the asbestos material into small fibers that linger in the air for extended periods of time. Once inhaled, the fibers remain in the lungs for a long period of time. As an increasing amount of fibers are inhaled, the risk for asbestos-related health problems continues to grow. Those who are most at risk for asbestos-related diseases include the following.
- Occupational Exposure: People who work in direct contact with asbestos.
- Paraoccupational Exposure: Workers’ families may inhale asbestos fibers brought in by clothes that have been in contact with ACM.
- Neighborhood Exposure: People who live or work in areas where asbestos-related operations take place.
There are a number of factors that contribute to asbestos exposure.
- Weather conditions
- Concentration of asbestos fibers in the air
- Worker’s breathing rate
- Duration of exposure
- Protective equipment worn
Smokers who inhale asbestos fibers have a larger risk of developing lung cancer over other types of asbestos-related diseases.
How is Asbestos Regulated in the Workplace?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the main regulation agency for asbestos exposure in the environment. Workers in environments where asbestos is a common material are also protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure safe working conditions. In order to regulate asbestos exposure, the EPA has developed and enforces specific regulations to protect the general public from the hazardous airborne contaminants found in asbestos.
Under the EPA Worker Protection Rule (40 CFR Part 763, Subpart G), the OSHA standards are extended to both state and local employees that work with asbestos material and those who are not covered by a state OSHA plan or the OSHA Asbestos Standards. Under this rule, all medical examinations, protective equipment, air monitoring, record keeping, and work practices must be compliant with the OSHA requirements. Additionally, there are similar standards imposed by several State and local agencies that need to be observed. These regulations help ensure the proper removal and disposal of materials containing asbestos and are critical to the health and safety of nearby individuals.
Although the EPA cannot fully extinguish the risk for asbestos-exposure, they have managed to protect the public by using a practical approach in handling asbestos. All workers that are expected to interact with asbestos contaminated environments are required to be properly trained and protected.
The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA have shown that asbestos exposure can lead to risks of lung cancer and mesothelioma. While the amount of asbestos fibers found in certain materials may vary, there are significant health risks for those who inhale the fibers. Individuals who work on or near materials with damaged asbestos are at a higher risk since the amount of inhaled asbestos fibers may lead to more severed asbestos-related diseases. These diseases have been responsible for roughly 3,000 deaths a year. There are four main diseases resulting from the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
- Asbestosis – Asbestosis is a non-cancerous respiratory disease that can be chronic and a serious threat to one’s health. It usually takes between 20-30 years before symptoms start appearing. Symptoms of this condition include shortness of breath and a dry crackling sound when inhaling. If left untreated, it can lead to cardiac failure.
- Lung Cancer – Lung cancer accounts for the largest number of deaths among all asbestos-related diseases. Common symptoms of this life-threatening disease include coughing, change in breathing, persistent chest pains, anemia, hoarseness, and shortness of breath.
- Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the thin membrane lining found on the chest, lungs, abdomen, and occasionally the heart. In the United States, there are roughly 200 annual cases of patients diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.
- Other Cancers – Ingesting asbestos fibers can also lead to other types of cancers. Evidence has shown that this could lead to cancers in the oral cavity, larynx, esophagus, colon, stomach, and kidney.
While the immediate exposure to asbestos may not pose a serious threat to one’s life, the prolonged exposure to the fibers may be life-threatening. Precautionary measures need to be taken by individuals working in environments where asbestos is a commonly found. Asbestos related diseases can be identified and diagnosed at early stages through a medical examination. This includes checking the patient’s medical history, chest x-ray, and conducting breathing capacity tests.
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer wherein malignant cells are found within the mesothelium, a protective sac covering most of the internal organs of the body. A majority of individuals who suffer from this rare condition tend to develop mesothelioma from inhaling harmful asbestos fibers. Once an individual is contracted with mesothelioma, the mesothelium becomes abnormal and divides with little control. As a result, nearby organs and tissues can become damaged which allows the malignant cells to spread to other parts of the body.
Who is at Risk for Mesothelioma?
Despite the fact that mesothelioma is still considered a rare form of cancer, its incidence rates have increased over the past 20 years. This is largely in part due to the significant number of American workers exposed to asbestos fibers during World War II. Even with stringent standards imposed by OSHA, there are still health risks for those working near asbestos.
There have been reports of individuals contracting mesothelioma after having a brief exposure time with the asbestos while others were heavily-exposed to the hazardous material did not develop the disease. There is also evidence that shows individuals living with asbestos-exposed workers have a risk for developing mesothelioma.
To reduce such risks, OSHA has enforced the use of protective equipment to prevent prolonged exposure to asbestos. Workers are also required to shower and change into a different set of clothes before they leave their workplace. These procedures help reduce the risk of asbestos exposure to the worker’s family.
Since the onset of asbestos-related diseases do not occur right away, the symptoms of mesothelioma generally appear between 30 to 50 years after exposure to the fibers. Common symptoms include shortness of breath and pain on the chest area. But depending on the specific type of mesothelioma, other symptoms may occur:
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Weight loss, abdominal pain, swelling in the abdomen area, blood clotting abnormalities, bowel obstruction, anemia, fever
- Other areas: Pain, swelling of the neck or face, difficulty in swallowing
Individuals displaying similar symptoms to those listed above should seek the help of a physician wherein a further diagnosis can be conducted. Since the symptoms of mesothelioma are largely similar to other conditions, diagnosing mesothelioma may often be difficult. Testing for mesothelioma may contain the following:
- Patient’s medical history
- Complete physical examination including lung function tests, chest/abdomen x-ray
- CT Scan or MRI
- Biopsy: Thoracoscopy (for chest cancer), Peritoneoscopy (for abdomen cancer)
Asbestos can be dangerous and should be dealt with carefully and with caution. Exposure to asbestos fibers can pose a significant threat to an individual’s health. Prolonged exposure to such material can lead to severe health-related problems. Individuals employed in industries where asbestos is common should make sure the workplace is compliant with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This can be critical in protecting workers against the long-term health effects related to asbestos exposure.
The Mesothelioma Center’s Asbestos.com
The HSE Publication, Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
Cancer.gov’s Publication: Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk
EPA’s publication, The National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants
Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: Asbestos Health Effects
EPA “School Buildings Requirements“
Asbestos.com: Asbestos Exposure
EPA “Asbestos Worker Protection Rule“