We’ve all heard of asbestos—that toxic, invisible ghost that haunts old buildings with the threat of lung disease and cancer. But even today, decades after its dangerous properties were discovered, many people remain confused about the exact risks posed by this hazardous substance.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a durable fibrous silicate mineral (not a type of mold, as some mistakenly believe) with inherent resistance to damage by fire, water, and chemical reactions. While asbestos occurs naturally in deposits of metamorphic rock, you are more likely to come into contact with it within your own home than spelunking within a cave: asbestos was used within the insulation of commercial and residential buildings for many years decades before its health risks became known.
What Makes Asbestos Dangerous?
The chemical properties that make asbestos so resistant to damage unfortunately also make it a highly toxic material. Asbestos is a carcinogen linked to a number of serious diseases including lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer of the lung cavity), as well as a chronic illness known as asbestosis (caused by severe scarring of the lung tissue).
These respiratory illnesses come as a result of breathing in microscopic asbestos fibers while living or working in an area contaminated by asbestos. The fibers travel so deeply into the lungs that they become permanently embedded and eventually begin to release contaminants into the surrounding tissues. After the initial period of exposure, it may take years or even decades for symptoms to begin to manifest.
What is Asbestos Used For?
Asbestos’ strong fibers and natural fireproofing properties made it a common component in insulation, construction materials, automotive parts, and flame-retardant fabrics and paints for many years. It was also found in household items such as makeup, talcum powder, cigarette filters, hair dryers, and other appliances.
What is the History of Asbestos Use?
Asbestos has been found in artifacts dating all the way back to the Stone Age. However, the current global asbestos crisis truly began as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, when asbestos saw widespread use as a cheap source of protective insulation for the machinery used in mass production of consumer goods. It was around this time that asbestos first began being used as a fireproofing agent and source of insulation for commercial and residential buildings as well. The booming arms industry during World War II led to an increased demand for asbestos, one that only grew as the housing market ballooned following the war’s conclusion.
Despite its long history of commercial use, asbestos’ detrimental effects on human health only became known to the wider public within the last several decades. While the first major medical journals began linking asbestos to exposure to cancer in the 1930s, it was not until the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 that asbestos was federally classified as a hazardous air pollutant.
Is Asbestos banned in the United States?
While the EPA has made several attempts to ban the use of asbestos products between then and now, there is still no asbestos ban in the United States. Protests from industries that rely on asbestos products have resulted in the failure of several proposed bills that would ban asbestos outright, including 2002’s Ban Asbestos in America Act.
Who is at the Highest Risk of Asbestos Exposure?
Globally, there are an estimated 255,000 asbestos-related deaths each year. However, because asbestos-related illnesses often do not manifest until decades after exposure, this is not an accurate representation of asbestos’ current threat to public health. Today, the individuals who are the most at risk of asbestos exposure are those employed in industrial or construction-related fields such as builders, miners, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics. Those living with workers employed in these fields are also at risk of secondary exposure from asbestos fibers carried home from the workplaces on clothing items.
Firefighters and veterans, especially those who worked or served prior to the 1980s, are also at risk due to the historic use of asbestos in firefighting suits and military machinery.
Finally, anyone who lives or works in a building that was made or insulated with materials containing asbestos may be at risk as well. Unfortunately, almost all buildings constructed prior to 1970 are likely to include some element of asbestos, be it in their shingles, floor tiles, ceilings, or walls. The good news is that, if you are not actively disturbing these materials through renovation or demolition, you should be safe: as long they remain contained, the asbestos fibers will not make their way into the air or your lungs.
Recent Asbestos Exposure Incidents
The largest mass asbestos exposure in recent history occurred as a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City. When the towers collapsed, a cloud of toxic dust containing asbestos, gypsum, powdered glass, and cement particles was released over several square miles of Lower Manhattan. While cancer rates among survivors and first responders are currently comparable to that of the general population, experts fear that a wave of mesothelioma cases may soon develop among those exposed in the wake of the attacks.
In 2018, a consumer advocacy organization known as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group determined that Playskool brand crayons sold at discount stores in Chicago contained trace amounts of asbestos. Hasboro, Playskool’s parent company, quickly released a statement that they would be re-examining the testing procedures used on their products.
The same year, a classroom at a Philadelphia elementary school was discovered to have an asbestos concentration of four million fibers per square centimeter—a density more than fifty times higher than samples taken from apartments near Ground Zero following 9/11. Many school buildings in America were constructed when asbestos was still widely used as a building material, but the United States government does not currently maintain any initiatives or databases on the status of asbestos contamination in public schools.
How Can You Protect Yourself Against Asbestos?
When entering an environment that may be contaminated by asbestos, the best way to keep yourself safe is to wear the proper personal protective equipment: a professional-grade respirator, goggles, rubber boots, and disposable coveralls and gloves. It is also crucial that you decontaminate with a thorough shower after exiting the contaminated area.
If you’re concerned that asbestos may be present in your home, you can either call an asbestos testing company to inspect your house or purchase a do-it-yourself testing kit that will provide instructions on how to safely send a sample of the suspected source of asbestos to a lab for identification.
While the continued presence of asbestos in our homes and workplaces is certainly unnerving, there is no need for the average American to lose undue amounts of sleep over this issue: generally speaking, short-term exposure to asbestos will not usually cause major health issues later down the line. Nevertheless, if you’d like to take action against this ongoing public health crisis, consider participating in an organization such as the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat or writing a letter to your congressman today.