In the '70s and ’80s, asbestos was regularly making the news because studies were confirming the mineral’s toxicity and the effects were serious: Asbestos was being connected to pulmonary disorders and aggressive cancers. The lack of media attention around asbestos since then has lead people to believe it is a concern of the past.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempted to ban asbestos in the late 1980s, but the ban was overturned by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. Asbestos is still found in a variety of products used in workplaces throughout the U.S., and old asbestos products linger in aged buildings as well.
Many people are under the impression that asbestos was banned in the U.S., and as a result, few people think about asbestos safety in the workplace.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limited the permissible level of asbestos exposure in U.S. workplaces to 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter. In workplaces where exposure is a concern, such as in the demolition industry, employers are required to protect workers with safety equipment and more. It’s mainly up to employees to notify OSHA if they are concerned about elevated asbestos exposure in the workplace.
Below are some common questions about asbestos and how to avoid the carcinogenic mineral.
Q: What is Asbestos?
A: Asbestos is the term for about six naturally occurring minerals used in industrial, commercial and household products. The six minerals are known for heat resistance, strength and chemical stability, making them ideal additives to strengthen products and make them fireproof.
Q: Why is asbestos dangerous?
A: Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that can easily break apart into microscopic pieces and be inhaled or ingested. Once inside the body, asbestos’ structure and composition damages cells and DNA in ways that lead to diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Q: What products contain asbestos?
A: Several thousand products have contained asbestos, from household items to industrial machinery. Many construction products were made with asbestos prior to the 1990s, making older homes more likely to contain the mineral.
Certain products manufactured today still contain asbestos, including construction materials such as roofing, flooring and automobile parts like brake pads and clutches.
Q: What occupations are most at-risk of asbestos exposure?
A: In the past, when it was legal to mine asbestos, asbestos miners and the workers who processed the raw ore at asbestos plants were the most at risk of dangerous exposure. Throughout the 20th century, anyone who worked a laboring job in an industrial or commercial setting was at risk of asbestos exposure.
Occupations at high risk of exposure include jobs in construction, textiles, industrial work, manufacturing, shipbuilding, power supply, chemical production, firefighting and automobile repair.
Q: What kinds of products pose the greatest asbestos exposure risk?
A: Aging, deteriorating and damaged asbestos products pose a risk of exposure, especially if they are disturbed and release asbestos-contaminated dust. Products that contained high concentrations of asbestos or are likely to release dust include construction materials like insulation, piping, flooring, roofing and drywall, and auto parts like brake pads and clutches.
Q: What can be done to avoid or limit asbestos exposure?
A: Learning about the products that could contain asbestos can help you avoid exposure. Visual inspection isn’t a reliable method of identifying asbestos products; only laboratory testing can confirm the presence of asbestos.
If you suspect a material may contain asbestos, call a licensed asbestos abatement professional. Wetting dusty asbestos products can reduce the risk of airborne asbestos exposure, but water alone isn’t an effective solution to avoiding exposure. Do-it-yourself asbestos abatement is not recommended because of the inherent health risks.
Q: If I suspect potentially dangerous asbestos exposure is occurring in my workplace, who do I report it to?
A: Workers can file a complaint with OSHA if they suspect asbestos is a hazard at their workplace. OSHA will investigate the complaint and inspect the workplace. Complaints can be filed online, by mail or fax, or reported over the phone by calling (800) 321-OSHA.
While minimal asbestos exposure has the potential to result in disease, it’s important to know that it generally takes repeated, heavy exposure to be considered at risk of an asbestos-related condition. This means people who may work with asbestos products on a regular basis should be concerned about limiting exposure with protective clothing and safety measures.
Around 20 percent of people exposed to asbestos develop a related disease. If you know you’ve been exposed to asbestos, you can enroll in a medical monitoring program or make sure to receive regular checkups to look for early signs of asbestos disease. Catching the diseases early can improve treatment outcomes and chances of long-term survival.