Prolonged exposure to asbestos carries the risk of many adverse health effects. Learning about the dangers of asbestos exposure and how to avoid them can help everyone from homeowners to landlords avoid hazardous situations.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring mineral fibers found in rock. For decades, asbestos was used as a building material in homes and other buildings. Asbestos is usually white, and its matted fibers can become airborne if the material is crumbly, unbound, or deteriorated.
Asbestos is no longer widely used commercially, but it can still exist in many older homes and buildings. You may find asbestos wrapped around older hot water pipes and water boilers, or used to tape together sections of heating ducts. You may also find asbestos in cement, flooring, and ceiling materials.
Which Health Problems are Caused by Asbestos?
Asbestos is only a risk if you breathe in asbestos fibers that are released into the air.
When you inhale large amounts of asbestos fibers, they can become lodged in your lungs and remain there. This can cause scarring and inflammation. Regular or long periods of exposure to high levels of asbestos in the air can be harmful to your health. It could increase your risk of getting a variety of diseases such as:
- Asbestosis (scarring of the lungs)
- Lung cancer
- Mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer of the mesothelium, the lining of the body organs, typically the lungs, stomach, or heart)
Many factors influence how exposure to asbestos will affect your health. Risk factors include:
- Health history and pre-existing conditions
- How much asbestos was in the air
- Exposure to asbestos over time
- How often a person was exposed to airborne asbestos
- The type, size and shape of asbestos fibers a person was exposed to
- Smokers and people with pre-existing lung diseases have a greater risk of developing asbestos-related diseases if exposed.
Diseases from asbestos exposure take many years to develop. On average, it can take 15 to 40 or more years for diseases to develop after exposure.
Who is At-Risk of Asbestos Exposure?
You are only at risk of asbestos exposure if you breathe in fibers released in the air.
If your home was built before 1980, then you are more likely to have asbestos in your home. It could be in the insulation wrapped around your furnace ducts or pipes, as well as in your floor tiles and other areas. Since asbestos in building materials has been banned in certain materials in different years, the age of the structure is important to determine what type of asbestos product may have been used during construction.
Asbestos typically only poses a potential health risk when it is disturbed, fraying, or crumbling, and when fibers are released in the air. Asbestos fibers that are enclosed behind walls, isolated in attics, bound tightly in an intact product or kept away from the interior environment of a home or building pose little risk.
Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) is defined as a material that contains greater than 1% asbestos and is regulated by OSHA and EPA in building materials in two forms: Friable (can be crumbled with hand pressure when dry) and Non-Friable (hard materials that cannot be crumbled with hand pressure); the regulations differ based on whether a material is friable or not.
Tests show that removing asbestos from older buildings can actually increase the risk of exposure and the number of asbestos fibers in the air if the proper precautions are not followed.
Asbestos exposure and related diseases have also been reported in asbestos workers, their families, and people who live near asbestos mines or processing facilities. Construction and trade workers involved in renovations and repairs to older buildings are at higher risk of asbestos exposure if proper safety measures are not followed.
Illinois Environmental Contractors Association Resources
For more information on finding a local contractor to assist with the asbestos abatement process, check the resources below: