Asbestos Fact Sheet: 8 Things You Need to Know

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1. Asbestos Has Some Remarkable Properties

Asbestos is the common name for six different naturally occurring silicate minerals. They are all composed of long, thin fibrous crystals, and many can be mined and manufactured into an astounding array of construction materials and commercial products. Asbestos can be woven into cloth or spun into yarn. It can also be added to cement, plastics and other substances. Asbestos has been prized since ancient times for many reasons. It is extremely resistant to heat, flame, and electrical and chemical damage. It can absorb sound. It also has a high tensile strength and is very flexible and lightweight. In addition to all of these valuable qualities, asbestos has traditionally been plentiful and therefore inexpensive. In 2006, the last year for which figures are available, over two million tons of asbestos were mined worldwide.

Although the peak of asbestos’s popularity occurred in the mid-20th Century, it has been used for thousands of years. The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, is said to have had an asbestos tablecloth, and it was woven into cloth by the ancient Greeks as well as the ancient Romans. Asbestos turns up in the writing of explorer Marco Polo, who observed the Chinese cleaning asbestos garments by simply placing them directly into fires—the dirt was burned off, while the asbestos fibers remained intact.

2. Asbestos Is Not Entirely Banned

Many people, knowing that asbestos is harmful to the human body, believe that the United States government and the governments of other developed nations have banned the use of asbestos outright. Unfortunately, however, that simply isn’t true. Products containing asbestos are still manufactured and sold in the United States today, and there are hundreds of thousands of buildings still standing that have asbestos-containing materials within them.

The history of asbestos regulation is complicated, and begins in 1971, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an emissions standard for asbestos as part of the Clean Air Act. In 1972, they extended this regulation to an occupational standard. Over the next decade, the EPA, in conjunction with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), batted the asbestos issue back and forth, sometimes also involving the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Finally, in 1989, the EPA enacted the “Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Rule,” which would have applied to the manufacture, import, processing and distribution of all asbestos products, and affected 94 percent of all asbestos consumption. The ban and phaseout were overturned by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, however, under pressure from asbestos industry groups and others who claimed that substitute products would be equally harmful. Today, only a few items remain banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the Clean Air Act, including corrugated paper, flooring felt, commercial paper, specialty paper, and certain spray-on materials. New asbestos applications are additionally banned.

3. Many Products Contain Asbestos

Dozens of products may still legally contain asbestos in certain amounts. These products are mostly used in the building and construction industry, and may exist in new structures. A partial list of these products includes vinyl sheet flooring; vinyl floor tiles; asphalt floor tiles; flooring backing; roofing shingles; cement wallboard; acoustical plaster; decorative plaster; boiler insulation; electrical wiring insulation; electrical panel partitions; caulking; spackling; adhesives; chalkboards; cement siding; cement pipes; heating and electrical ducts; fire blankets; fire doors; high temperature gaskets; elevator brake shoes; elevator equipment panels; ceiling tiles; electrical cloth; and thermal paper products.

4. Asbestos Remains in Many Buildings

Most asbestos abatement professionals agree that unless the asbestos material is considered “friable”—that is, easily broken or damaged—it is safer to leave it in place than to remove it. Therefore, almost all buildings constructed prior to 1980 will contain asbestos in one or more applications. When asbestos does become friable, it takes very little pressure to dislodge its microscopic fibers, which then become airborne and can be inhaled, leading to cancer and other diseases. For example, a rubber ball impacting a gymnasium ceiling with spray-in insulation that has become friable could potentially release asbestos particulate into the gym.

Asbestos material also becomes friable when it is damaged, as when an asbestos-containing room or building is renovated or demolished. In order to mitigate the damage this toxin might do during a renovation or demolition project, trained and licensed professionals must carry out the work according to certain specifications and safety protocols, which include the use of protective gear and respirators. Additionally, the asbestos materials must be discarded in certain ways. With the recent popularity of do-it-yourself home improvement projects, the risks of asbestos exposure have become very real to everyday individuals.

Another option for dealing with extant asbestos-containing materials, or ACMs as they are known in the industry, is encapsulation. This process seals the asbestos underneath another layer of some safer substance, in order to ensure that it never comes into contact with the air inside the building.

5. The Body Is Not Equipped to Flush Out Asbestos

Unlike many toxins, which the human body can cleanse out, asbestos fibers remain in the system once they are inhaled or ingested. Since they are microscopic, the fibers can slip through the lungs’ natural filtration system. Typically, after being inhaled, they then penetrate outwardly through the membrane which covers the lungs and lines the chest cavity, called the mesothelium. The fibers can also be swallowed, in which case they may end up in the peritoneal (stomach) cavity. Some medical researchers also believe that the asbestos fibers can travel through the body via the lymphatic system. Regardless of how they get where they end up, the fact remains that the fibers stay there. No amount of coughing and no cleansing diet can remove the fibers, in part because of their sharp, needle-like nature. These fibers can penetrate the tissues, and over time they can change them on a cellular level, leading to diseases.

6. Asbestos Can Cause Several Different Diseases

Asbestos is a carcinogen, and may lead to one or more diseases in those who have inhaled it. The most common asbestos-related condition is pleural plaques, which are small areas of fibrous collagen tissue that usually occur on the parietal pleura. They are not pre-cancerous, but they do indicate asbestos exposure and as such are a harbinger of other diseases like asbestosis or mesothelioma.

Asbestosis is a noncancerous, but chronic, respiratory disease that occurs after asbestos fibers cause scarring within the lungs. This scarring, which is also called fibrosis, can cause pain and difficulty breathing, because it interferes with the normal expansion and contraction of the lungs. Asbestosis is a disabling disease, and often fatal; it can also contribute to heart problems. Similarly, pleural fibrosis is when fibrous tissue develops in the pleura, rather than on the lungs themselves. It may be localized or widespread, and is often asymptomatic, diagnosed only by chance during an x-ray performed for another purpose.

Plerual effusions indicate an excess of fluid collected within the pleural space, between the two layers of the mesothelium (one layer surrounds the lungs; the other lines the inside of the chest cavity). Pleural effusions can lead to breathing problems, pain and a tight feeling within the chest. They are often associated with mesothelioma, but can occur on their own, in which case they are referred to as “benign asbestos-related pleural effusions.”

Lastly, and most serious, is mesothelioma. This rare form of cancer, diagnosed in roughly 3,000 Americans each year, usually targets the mesothelium that surrounds the lungs (pleura), although it can also strike in the abdominal cavity (peritoneal mesothelioma). The tumor that forms with mesothelioma is a diffuse one that can spread rapidly across the tissue. Yet mesothelioma is rarely diagnosed in its earliest stage, when it is operable. Instead, it develops quietly within the body before manifesting symptoms. Asbestos exposure is accountable for virtually all cases of mesothelioma.

All of these diseases may take up to 40 or 50 years to develop within the body after the asbestos exposure, which means that many current or former workers may be living with these conditions without being aware of them.

7. Asbestos Is Widely Mined and Exported

Asbestos is mined in many geographical locations, including Quebec, British Colombia, Russia, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, South America, China, Kazakhstan, and India. Many of these countries also continue to use asbestos widely. Developing nations, in particular, are using asbestos in new construction and manufacturing capacities, in part because of its utility and low cost, and in part because of aggressive marketing on the part of exporting countries. Canada has recently come under fire for its continued mining and exportation of the substance, despite the health hazards, and there have been several campaigns urging Canada to shut down its existing asbestos mines and put the workers on pensions.

8. The Toxicity of Asbestos Has Been Known For Centuries

Considering the popularity of asbestos as a building material, beginning during the time of the Industrial Revolution and lasting through most of the 20th Century, it might stand to reason that the health risks of asbestos have only recently been discovered. This is not so, however. Even Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, chronicled the increased rate of lung disease in slaves who wove the asbestos fibers into cloth. After the material was widely implemented in factories during the Industrial Revolution, British Factory safety inspectors were concerned about the hazardous effects of the dust caused by asbestos use, and just eight years after that, the British Parliamentary Commission confirmed the first cases of asbestos deaths, and recommended safety measures such as better ventilation. The term “asbestosis” was coined in 1927, which also marks the first workers’ compensation claim brought for an asbestos-related disease in the United States.

The usefulness of asbestos often overshadowed its potential cost to human health, and its use peaked in the period between the 1930s and the 1970s. Meanwhile, concerns over its safety continued to mount, and to be expressed by individuals and industry critics alike, as well as by health-care practitioners. In the late 1970s, public outcry began to gather steam, and regulations began to be enacted which would eventually limit the use of asbestos in new products and constructions. Research continues into the specific damages that asbestos use can cause, and into the ways that it affects the body.

Also Read: 6 Asbestos Advertisements You Won’t Believe