Asbestos, a group of naturally occurring fibrous mineral has excellent tensile strength and the unique property of being resistant to fire, heat, electricity, and chemicals. For this reason, it has been referred to as the ‘magic mineral’ and was commonly used as insulating material in the form of roofing and water supply lines in houses and commercial buildings. Pure asbestos was mixed with materials such as cloth, plastic, cement, and paper to increase their strength. Asbestos was also used in clutches, brake pads, gaskets, and linings in automobiles. After the dangers of asbestos were revealed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned certain applications of asbestos in 1973 and most asbestos products were banned in 1989, but, this has been overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. As a result, asbestos continues to be used particularly in Russia and Asia, and in small amounts in the United States too. Chrysotile, which is the only type of asbestos that is still in commercial use, is found in fiber cement boards. 

Are people still exposed to asbestos?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in their workplace and at least 107,000 people lose their lives each year worldwide due to occupational asbestos exposure. Even though the use of asbestos is restricted now, millions of tons of asbestos that have already been used in the 20th century still remain in old buildings. Most old buildings and machinery in the US contain high-percentage of asbestos products that were manufactured even before modern asbestos regulations were passed. 

Disturbing the asbestos deposits can contaminate the air and inhalation of these air-borne asbestos fibers can pose a risk of developing lung ailments such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. Therefore, the burden of asbestos-related disorders is continuously rising. 

In the United States, the government had recognized six types of asbestos under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) passed in 1986. However, further attempts to regulate asbestos have failed because of business interests. Therefore, asbestos can still be found in buildings, schools, factories, homes, roads, ships, trains, and other automobiles. Currently, the use of asbestos is highly restricted in the United States and products cannot contain more than 1% asbestos. Asbestos is not completely banned in the United States but it is regulated. Thus, asbestos still poses a health threat to people in the United States and nations that have not banned this hazardous mineral yet.

How toxic are asbestos fibers?

Asbestos fibers are microscopic, which means they are not visible to naked eye, have no smell or any taste. Moreover, once you get exposed to asbestos, there may not be any immediate symptoms. So, these tiny asbestos fibers may be inhaled or even swallowed by a person without even realizing it! Once asbestos gains entry into your body, it will never dissolve and there will be extreme difficulty in expelling it and as a result, get trapped inside the body over the years. This will lead to scarring, inflammation, and eventually genetic damage to the cells of the body. There is no known way to reverse this cellular damage yet. The effects of asbestos exposure are worst when exposed to the intense concentration of the material regularly over a long period of time. 

What can you do to stay away from the ill-effects of asbestos?

During the 1980-90s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) gradually reduced the permissible level of asbestos concentration at the workplaces. Further, in 1997, the OSHA enacted laws that restricted the asbestos exposure level to 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter at any workplace. These tough laws have resulted into some of the largest asbestos lawsuit settlements in the US. Though asbestos regulations have reduced the risk of workplace exposure, a certain degree of risk continues to remain for many occupations. People involved in construction, shipbuilding, and mining work are at high risk of regular asbestos exposure. Thus, following these measures will help limit the risk of developing asbestos-related diseases by workers in these industries:

  • Using proper personal protective equipments while at the workplace.
  • Changing workplace clothes and having a shower immediately after work.
  • Washing workplace clothes daily.

Safe Removal of Asbestos

Most of the buildings that were built before the 1980s contain asbestos in various forms. You cannot determine whether a product contains asbestos just by looking at it unless it has been clearly marked on it. A sample of the suspected asbestos-containing material may be sent to the laboratory for testing. Moreover, in some situations, it is better to remove the asbestos-containing materials but it might be safe to leave it undisturbed in other situations. Certified asbestos abatement professionals help you evaluate and remove asbestos safely. 

About the author:
Gregory A. Cade
, the author is the founder and principal attorney at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. He is an Industrial Hygiene degree holder with a solid science background. He is a member of the Birmingham Bar Association, Alabama State Bar, and the District of Columbia Bar. He has represented thousands of victims of occupational/environmental asbestos exposure and other known toxins by fighting for their claim. His areas of practice include environmental/occupational law as well as Mesothelioma and Asbestos.