Asbestos is a popular topic for environmental agencies for a reason: it is dangerous and it is everywhere. Asbestos-containing materials (ACM) can be found nearly everywhere on the planet.

Thankfully, asbestos removal and disposal technology and regulations have made great strides over the past 40 years. This has minimized the risk of asbestos exposure to most people.

Asbestos is still very prevalent in the world today, however, and great care must be taken when working in specific industries. Let’s look at why asbestos can still be so commonly found years after banning new asbestos manufacturing and large disposal projects.

A Brief History of Asbestos

Asbestos mining began in earnest at the end of the 19th century and grew steadily throughout the early 20th century. The material was extremely valuable due to its properties as an excellent insulator and fire-resistant material.

The first asbestos-related death was recorded in 1906, but public awareness of asbestos-related health risks didn’t start until the 1930s. As time went on and more data was available, asbestos quickly fell out of favor in first-world countries, with bans and manufacturing stops occurring in the 1970s and 80s.

Many less-developed countries still use asbestos for construction today. This includes some more advanced countries still allowing asbestos production for use in specific materials.

Asbestos in the US

Believe it or not, asbestos is technically still legal in the US. While new materials containing asbestos may not be produced, recycled asbestos products are allowed to be produced in some instances.

Recent regulations and laws, however, have set 2024 as the date when even recycled ACMs will cease to be produced. The EPA Asbestos Risk Evaluation Part 2 is placing a ban on all imported ACMs, which will basically halt further production of recycled materials.

Why is Asbestos So Dangerous?

The risk of asbestos exposure is so dangerous due to some of the unique properties of asbestos itself. While humans are exposed to many dangerous materials on a daily basis, the vast majority aren’t encountered on a high-enough level to cause lasting health issues.

Asbestos, however, is different. The fibers of asbestos are extremely small, making them easy to breathe in. This is where asbestos differs from other hazardous materials–asbestos fibers are ‘sharp’ and can easily get stuck in the lungs. The human body has difficulty removing asbestos from the lungs, which can eventually lead to conditions such as pulmonary fibrosis or hypertension.

Avoiding Asbestos Exposure

Most people don’t have to worry about asbestos exposure. Several professions, however, have a much higher risk factor of exposure to asbestos.

If you work in any industrial setting, you may be exposed to asbestos. Construction jobs, specifically demolition and renovation, also have a higher rate of asbestos exposure. This doesn’t mean these jobs will always have asbestos exposure.

Some of the most common places ACMs are found include:

  • Insulation (pipe, thermal, HVAC, etc)
  • Foam/Popcorn coatings (usually ceilings)
  • Piping, gaskets, & related materials
  • Roofing
  • Vinyl floor tiles

These common places usually consist of older varieties. Be sure to have an evaluation conducted to determine the existence of any possible ACMs before large-scale projects begin.

In order to mitigate the risks associated with asbestos exposure, make sure to talk to your supervisor or safety representative. Every at-risk professional should be aware of the risks associated with asbestos exposure.

For more information, please refer to the Reducing Risks of Asbestos at Work Sites article.

Illinois Environmental Contractors Association Resources

For more information on finding a local contractor to assist with asbestos information, remediation, or removal check the resources below:

Illinois Environmental Contractors Association Members

IECA Common Questions & Answers

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