Asbestos: The mere sound of that word makes you shiver.
Without a full understanding of what it is, where can we find it, and how do we protect ourselves and our loved ones from it, we will go on being afraid of it and more importantly, continue to be knowledge free. Asbestos shouldnt be ignored and pretend that it doesnt exist anymore. It does exist, and although it has not been produced in the United States since 2002, we still import approximately 3,000 tons per year.
We have been trying to get rid of asbestos since the early 1980s. For over three decades, we have been removing asbestos from our homes, our schools, and our work environment and we still arent free of it.
Getting rid of asbestos isnt as easy as you think. The process and undertaking of getting rid of this villain uses every precaution, and more often than you would think, asbestos is best left where it is as long as it isnt disturbed. How could that possibly be? Removing asbestos can be far more dangerous than leaving the original substance intact. In fact, if properly sealed and left undisturbed, asbestos doesnt pose any danger to us.
Did you know that asbestos is a naturally occurring substance and we are all exposed to it to some degree? The difference between us and the Danger Zone is the amount of exposure to it.
The problem with asbestos occurs when we inhale the fibers, and although we exhale most of them right back out of our system, there are still some fibers that remain in us and can scratch our lungs. This can cause scarring and inflammation which can lead to serious respiratory diseases.
A prime example is: These fibers can be found in construction materials, and because of their durability, they will build up over time and eventually will be strong enough to stay in our lungs for the remainder of our life. So, although you may feel great now, those same fibers we breathe in today could give us cancer 30 to 40 years from now.
What does asbestos actually look like?
The United States government defines asbestos as a naturally occurring group of fibrous minerals that are very strong. These minerals can be woven and can resist heat as well as most chemicals.
To the human eye and in simple terms, asbestos looks just like attic insulation. In other words, a great big ball of thick fuzz! This is how asbestos looks most of the time in commercial forms.
Believe it or not, asbestos has been around for thousands of years, even dating as far back to the ancient Greeks. What made it so popular in demand by the builders was its ability to withstand heat and erosion.
In some instances, asbestos was also used in clothing material because of it fire-resistant qualities.
The beginning of modern asbestos began around 1868 through mining deposits. Although suspicions were noted decades earlier, it took a little more than 100 years later when reports began to appear with the results of long-term harmful effects due to asbestos exposure. Then 10 years later, in 1989, the United States government issued a ban on all products containing asbestos. However, that ban was overturned in 1991, with the exception of new uses of asbestos as well as certain products.
Where can you find asbestos?
The reality is, we are all exposed to asbestos. However, it is in such small quantities, it poses no threat to us.
Typical air concentration of asbestos fibers is 0.00001 to 0.0001 fibers per millileter. We can compare this with the U.S. workplace which is limited to exposing employees to 0.1 fibers/mL and significant exposure is considered years of exposure to 0.125 to 30 fibers/mL.
As far as commercial products are concerned, asbestos is still found in heating and acoustic insulation. It is also found in fire proofing materials as well as building materials such as roofing and flooring.
In addition to this, asbestos can be found in older automotive parts such as disc brake pads and drum brake linings. Both brake pads and drum brake linings use asbestos because of its friction abilities.
Although asbestos has been banned in new products which include flooring felt, cement shingles (also known as asbestos siding), corrugated, commercial and specialty paper, older material that used asbestos can still be widely found.
Asbestos can also be found in nature. Fibrous asbestos is embedded in rocks (most commonly known as ultramafic rock, a type of igneous rock).
It is important to know that not all ultramafic rock contains asbestos; however, ultramafic rock does have the potential to contain veins of asbestos.
There are mining areas in the eastern United States that have been discovered to contain naturally occurring asbestos. But, to obtain the asbestos for use, and more importantly, to make it airborne, the rock must be crushed to release the fibers.
Testing for asbestos should be conducted by a licensed government agency. Only trained asbestos abatement professionals should be the ones performing any type of removal. There will be many instances where it will be safer to seal the asbestos in it’s environment rather than disturbing it by trying to remove it altogether.
Sources: Asbestos Project Plan, EPA,
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Photos: Property of E. Rayen