Mesothelioma is a deadly form of cancer that most often affects the lining of the lungs. It is caused by exposure to asbestos. But isn’t asbestos a thing of the past? Isn’t it that stuff they did away with back in the ‘70s?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that “in the past, asbestos exposure was associated mainly with mining and milling of the raw material, and with workers engaged in construction and product manufacture or use of end products.”
For years, mining companies and manufacturers either didn’t know about the toxic nature of asbestos, or, once they learned of the danger, failed to warn those working with the materials. As a result of even the smallest exposure to microscopic asbestos fibers – easily inhaled – workers developed asbestos diseases including asbestosis, a severe scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs or abdomen and, occasionally, the heart.
However, asbestos disease generally has a long latency period, sometimes as much as 40 years. This means by the time the danger was well known, workers had been exposed often for decades. Their families, too, were at risk, as workers often brought home the deadly dust on clothing and shoes. But the CDC notes the period of asbestos disease linked to occupational exposure is beginning to peak, and will probably decline in the next two decades, at least for those in the U.S.
But there is another danger, often overlooked. Asbestos is still all around us. It’s in our homes, offices and public buildings. Asbestos was widely used in construction as a fire retardant. Even after the danger of asbestos exposure was discovered, it was most often not removed from existing structures. This is because when asbestos is left whole and undisturbed, it poses no danger. It is when asbestos is broken and the dust is released that it becomes a toxic hazard.
But therein lays the hidden danger. Asbestos today is “out of sight, and out of mind.”
“Today in the United States, most occupational exposures occur during repair, renovation, removal, or maintenance of asbestos that was installed years ago,” according to the CDC. “People can be exposed at home, both to old sources of asbestos as a result of activities such as home renovation or to new sources of asbestos as a result of certain types of recreational activities and hobbies such as auto repairs or gardening, which may disturb natural outcroppings of asbestos in the environment.”
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), products containing asbestos that may be found in the home include:
• Some roofing and siding shingles are made of asbestos cement.
• Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation.
• Asbestos may be present in textured paint and in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints. Their use was banned in 1977.
• Artificial ashes and embers sold for use in gas-fired fireplaces may contain asbestos.
• Older products such as stove-top pads may have some asbestos compounds.
• Walls and floors around woodburning stoves may be protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets.
• Asbestos is found in some vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives.
• Hot water and steam pipes in older houses may be coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape.
• Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.
The United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) provides information and guidelines about working with asbestos. Construction workers involved in demolition and renovations generally know and follow these safety standards to protect workers who may come in contact with asbestos, or face heavy penalties. But homeowners who undertake “Do It Yourself” renovation projects may be less likely to consider the hidden dangers of asbestos.
Another often overlooked source of asbestos exposure danger occurs following natural disasters, like the recent “Superstorm Sandy,” which devastated a large portion of the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey.
In December 2012, federal officials warned cleanup workers – many of them homeowners and volunteers, not trained professionals – involved in recovery efforts to be aware of hidden health hazards posed by storm debris, including asbestos. News agency NJ.com quoted Judith Enck, regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who said, “We want to make sure that as the clean-up is occurring that there are not problems with exposure to mold, exposure to lead, exposure to asbestos.”
The EPA warned not only are professional contractors and other workers employed in cleanup efforts at risk, but property owners, tenants, and volunteers who pitch in to help. The agency established guidelines for “Dealing with Debris and Damaged Buildings” in the event of natural disasters and weather emergencies, which include using caution when exposed to building materials that may contain hazardous materials such as asbestos, “that when carried by the air can be breathed in and cause adverse health effects.”
A terrific list of resources for how to properly handle potentially toxic materials including asbestos is available at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) website. The ADAO is the largest independent asbestos victims’ organization in the U.S., and is dedicated to preventing consumer, environmental and occupational asbestos-caused diseases through national and international education, advocacy, and community initiatives.
You can also download the full report from the CDC, “Asbestos Toxicity: Who is at Risk of Exposure to Asbestos?”