What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a group of six types of naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos minerals are made up of fine, durable fibers and are resistant to heat, fire and many chemicals. Once called the “miracle mineral” for such properties, asbestos was used in a slew of everyday products, from building materials to fireproof protective gear. It is now widely known that exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a fatal cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, as well as other cancers and lung-related illnesses.
All six types of asbestos minerals have common characteristics. All forms of the mineral are odorless and tasteless. When asbestos is present in a material or product, it cannot be detected by a visual examination and must be tested in a laboratory. These properties often make it difficult to determine specific risks of asbestos exposure. However, any exposure to the group of minerals can lead to pleural mesothelioma and other diseases such as lung cancer or asbestosis.
Asbestos use is not banned in the U.S., but it is strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government entities. Asbestos can only be used in products that have historically contained the mineral. In other words, no "new uses" are permitted. Additionally, these products can be made with asbestos only if there is no adequate substitute.
This has led to a steep decrease in nationwide use. In 1973, domestic consumption of asbestos was 803,000 metric tons. Consumption in 2005 was a fraction of that, totaling only 2,400 metric tons. The small amount that is still used annually goes into products that require fireproof and heat resistant qualities. Products which may still be made with asbestos include protective clothing, pipe insulation, brake linings and similar materials.
Other products historically known to contain asbestos include:
Wallboard joint compound
Wall and attic insulation
Asbestos paper and millboard
Individuals who work around asbestos must be adequately protected. Employers are required to disclose the presence of asbestos to workers and provide proper protective gear, such as air-purifying respirators, before any work that may disturb asbestos.
When maintenance or demolition work disturbs asbestos materials or they fall apart over time, the safest way to repair or remove the threat is to hire a trained and accredited asbestos professional. In most cases, hiring an abatement expert is required by law.
The government regulates proper procedures for asbestos abatement, including notifying the appropriate state agency before asbestos work, preventing asbestos from becoming airborne and disposing of the hazardous material properly. Choosing to perform an asbestos project yourself without following these procedures can result in costly fines and jail time.
It is important abatement workers follow all safety precautions, such as sealing off the work area and keeping asbestos-containing materials wet to help prevent asbestos dust from entering the air. Before hiring someone to complete asbestos work, check with the Better Business Bureau, your local air pollution control board or a local worker safety agency to confirm the inspectors and contractors are properly licensed. Also look for a history of work-related safety violations or lawsuits.
Individuals who continue to work with asbestos must be adequately protected. Employers must advise workers of the presence of asbestos and must provide proper protective gear such as air-purifying respirators. Further laws regulate proper asbestos abatement procedures, outlining how to prevent asbestos from becoming airborne and how to properly dispose of the hazardous material. These instructions note safety precautions such as keeping asbestos-containing materials wet so asbestos dust does not enter the air.