The construction industry today is safer than ever, stemming from better equipment, increased awareness, tighter regulation and improved technology. Yet one lingering problem — a very quiet one — still exists: potential for asbestos exposure. The use of the toxic mineral has dropped significantly in recent decades, but vigilance is still required to ensure your safety and the safety of family members around you.
QUESTION: For a construction worker, where is the biggest risk of asbestos exposure?
Answer: The biggest threat today in construction is in the re-modelling or renovation of an existing structure, particularly in ones that were originally built before the mid-1980s. Asbestos products were common in residential and commercial construction throughout much of the 20th century. They become especially threatening as they age and become more brittle when they are disturbed during an improvement project. The microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne, and can unknowingly be inhaled or ingested, leading to serious health issues in the future.
Q: When else is it dangerous?
A: It’s particularly dangerous during a demolition, which sends the toxic asbestos into the air, or during a fire, because the smoke can carry the asbestos a significant distance. This is why firefighters wear a breathing apparatus to protect themselves.
Q: Where exactly are the asbestos products in those older structures?
A: They are everywhere, from the floor to the roof. There was often asbestos in the floor tiles, drywall, plumbing and cement foundation. Asbestos was once considered a miracle mineral for its ability to strengthen most anything with which it was mixed, and resist heat. It also was affordable and versatile. Unfortunately, it was toxic, too, although many companies ignored that fact until public opinion made it impossible.
Q: What about now in new construction? I thought asbestos was banned in this country?
A: Asbestos is heavily regulated now, but not banned in the United States and Canada like it is in more than 50 countries. Although the asbestos mines in North America have all closed, it is still being imported, but in a smaller amounts. Asbestos is still used in roofing products including shingles and roofing felt. It is great at reducing heat and the threat of fire. It also is still used in some cement products. In most products, it can still be used as long as it doesn’t exceed 1 percent of the total material. However, medical experts believe that no amount of asbestos is considered safe.
Q: Are roofers especially at risk today?
A: The answer is likely yes with new construction and new products. A new roof often means tearing off an old roof, which sends those fibers into the air. They can be unknowingly inhaled. Plus, when they are aged and brittle, they become more dangerous.
Q: Why isn’t everyone in the construction and renovation business more careful and cautious?
A: With asbestos exposure, it can take decades before a health issue becomes obvious. It can be 50 years after the inhalation of asbestos fibers before a person develops mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos exposure. The fibers lodge in the lining around the lungs, slowly causing scaring and eventually leading to cancer. But it is a long process, and it is difficult to diagnose until the symptoms become obvious.
Q: What can you do to protect yourself and your family?
A: If you are re-modelling or renovating, have the place analyzed by an asbestos expert who can help with the proper abatement. If you are working around asbestos products, wear proper safety equipment and a breathing device. And whatever you do, don’t go home with the same clothes you wore at work. Those fibers can cling to clothing, and taking them home will put the entire family in danger.