Hazardous Household Chemicals: Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of natural mineral fibers widely used to manufacture building materials for nearly a century. Asbestos was highly prized in the building industry for the strength, insulation properties, and fire resistance that the fibers added to materials like roofing, insulation, siding, and tiles.

Millions of homes and buildings still contain asbestos used in their construction. As long as the materials are in good shape and cannot be crumbled by hand, the asbestos is adequately contained and poses no danger. When the materials crumble from age or exposure or are damaged, asbestos can become a health hazard.

Is the Use of Asbestos Banned Today?
It is a misconception that the use of asbestos was banned in the United States in the 1970s. Some uses of the material were banned. Asbestos can no longer be used to manufacture clothing, spray-on fireproofing for buildings, patching compounds, and gas heaters. Hair dryer manufacturers stopped using asbestos voluntarily and hair dryers with asbestos were recalled in 1979.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a program that would phase out the use of commercial asbestos over a 10 year period. The proposal passed in 1989 and phase one was implemented in 1990, but the federal appeals court overturned the law in 1991. Two years of debate and clarification followed, and the result was a ban on six categories of product:

  • Flooring felt – an underlayment for flooring
  • Commercial paper – a thin barrier used for insulation
  • Corrugated paper – insulation similar in construction to corrugated cardboard
  • Rollboard – a double layer of paper laminated together
  • Specialty paper – a thin paper used for fluid filters
  • New use – asbestos can not be used to manufacture products that do not historically contain it

Under the Clean Air Act, other particular application methods are defined that apply to asbestos-containing materials.

While asbestos materials are still more widely in use in the United States than most people are aware of, asbestos mining is banned, and only a few countries still mine asbestos, including Canada and Russia.

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Where Asbestos is Found
In most cases, asbestos in your home does not pose significant risk. Since asbestos is always bound to other materials, risk of exposure is only when those materials can be crumbled by hand. This condition is called friable asbestos. One of the properties that makes asbestos so appealing for use in building materials is its indestructibility. Asbestos will not burn, can’t be broken down by any known chemical process, and does not break down with age. The same cannot be said for the materials asbestos is combined with.

When construction materials like siding, tiling, and insulation become brittle and start to crumble after decades of use, the binding material crumbles away and asbestos dust can be released into the air. At the highest risk are deteriorating buildings and old homes and apartments in low-income neighborhoods. Most homes built after the 1990s contain little asbestos, and many products that contain asbestos, like vinyl tiles, went out of fashion decades ago.

When to Worry
Most homes, even older ones, are safe. Commercial buildings are more likely than residential homes to have funding-fueled construction shortcuts, like carpet laid over asbestos tile. The time to worry is during a major renovation that involves tearing down walls, replacing very old siding, or pulling up old tiles. Processes that produce a great deal of dust should be handled with care, even in newer homes.

Before beginning a DIY project, it’s wise to send a sample of the material being removed to a lab for analysis. If you know or suspect asbestos-containing materials are in your home, the safest course is often to leave it in place undisturbed. Issues are more often raised by efforts to rid a home of asbestos than by asbestos left alone.

DIY Renovations
If you decide to renovate a home likely to have asbestos materials, protect yourself. Homeowners are not bound by commercial EPA laws, but it is wise to take precautions. The EPA goal for professional asbestos abatement is fairly straightforward: keep the dust down and wear protective clothing. Homeowners can adapt the same principals used by professionals:

  • Seal off the work area, including the ventilation system, the doors, and the windows.
  • Renovate during months that are cool and temperate.
  • Wear disposable outer clothing, including gloves and shoe covers.
  • Wear a filtered breathing mask – a simple painter’s mask is not enough.
  • Remove all furnishings from the room that might collect dust.
  • Use careful methods of demolition that produce the least amount of dust, for example sawing away wallboards and carefully peeling insulation from pipes.
  • After the project is complete, vacuum using a HEPA filter, carefully dispose of both filter and dust, and wet mop or sponge any remaining dust. Dispose of cleanup materials with the asbestos debris, including mop heads.
  • Check local EPA regulations about asbestos debris disposal.

Consequences of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos causes a relatively rare cancer called mesothelioma that develops 15 to 50 years after exposure and is always fatal. The overwhelming majority of victims are people who work with or around asbestos, but there is no known safe level of exposure. People who live, work, or go to school in structures constructed with asbestos are not generally considered at risk and do not currently comprise a significant percentage of victims. This may change in the future, as the homes and buildings built in the heyday of asbestos construction between the 1940s and the 1970s age and deteriorate.

Another concern among environmentalists is large-scale disaster. Events like the 9/11 terrorist attack and major hurricanes like Katrina pulverize buildings and throw tons of dust in the air. Construction dust inevitably contains toxic pollutants including asbestos, lead, and chemical compounds. The full impact of these disasters may not be measurable for decades to come.

Don’t Panic
Mesothelioma is still one of the rarest cancers and the people most likely to develop cancer are those exposed for a long period of time and their families. Despite the recent public focus on the dangers of mesothelioma, the general public is at little risk under normal circumstances.

To put it into perspective, 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are reported in the U.S. each year. Pneumonia and the flu are responsible for killing 52,717 Americans per year.

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