Is asbestos ever safe? It is a simple enough question, but the answer is complicated and depends largely upon whom you ask. Never assume asbestos is safe.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, states, “Asbestos-containing materials that aren’t damaged or disturbed are not likely to pose a health risk.” Another federal agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), makes a more definitive statement: “There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber.”
The key to understanding whether asbestos can ever be safe lies in the words “damaged or disturbed.” If asbestos-containing materials are intact, with no chance of becoming airborne, then there is general agreement among scientists that the asbestos is in relatively safe condition. The real trouble begins when those microscopic asbestos fibers are disturbed or damaged, either through the natural breakdown of asbestos-containing materials that comes with age or during a renovation project. Asbestos fibers that break loose and become airborne are a definite hazard to human health.
Airborne fibers can be inhaled easily and lodge in the lungs, where they cause scarring and inflammation that can lead to mesothelioma (an incurable cancer) and other deadly, asbestos-related diseases. “Every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of getting an asbestos-related disease,” states OSHA. Even brief exposure to asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma.
The EPA advises that the best thing to do with any asbestos-containing material in good condition is to leave it alone. Only an accredited asbestos inspector can determine if asbestos fibers have become airborne.