Asbestos is the general name used to
describe several types of fibrous minerals. These minerals occur naturally
and have been mined since the late 1800s for use in modern commercial
industries. As asbestos fibers are strong, heat resistant, chemical resistant,
and useful in providing heat insulation, their most common uses include
addition to building products, insulation materials, and products intended
for use in high friction areas (e.g. vehicle brake parts). Although there
are six types of asbestos, the most common type found in buildings is
chrysotile, also known as white asbestos. The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 90-95 percent of all asbestos
contained in buildings throughout the United States is chrysotile.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen,
and inhalation of asbestos fibers is known to cause respiratory problems
and lung diseases such as:
- Asbestosis - a lung disease in which inhaled fibers
become stuck in the lung tissue, eventually causing scarring
- Mesothelioma - a cancer of the membranes lining
the chest and lung cavity and/or the abdominal cavity
- Lung cancer - cancer of the lung tissue itself.
A combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is known to greatly increase
an individual’s risk of lung cancer.
All three of these diseases experience delayed development and the diseases
may not manifest for 10-40 years after the initial asbestos exposure.
Further, there is some indication that exposure to asbestos through inhalation
and possibly ingestion may also be related to other cancers of the respiratory
and gastrointestinal tracts.
In the home environment, asbestos can be found in numerous locations.
Some of the most common areas are floor and ceiling tiles, plasters, insulations,
adhesives, wallboard, joint compound, roofing materials, fireproofing
materials, and cement products. Asbestos materials in the piping that
transports drinking water can also be another source of exposure. Asbestos
that is intact, undisturbed, and in overall good condition does not necessarily
pose a problem to human health. Deterioration and damage releases fibers
into the air. Asbestos fibers can enter the home environment as a result
of infiltration of airborne asbestos from mines or factories; improper
renovation or demolition of a building containing asbestos; and dust brought
home on the skin or clothing of individuals exposed at work.
Asbestos may be found in a number of locations in the home. Until the
1970s, many building products and insulation materials contained asbestos,
including insulation on steam and furnace pipes, ducts, and boilers; vinyl,
rubber, or asphalt floor tiles; soundproofing or decorative material sprayed
on walls or ceilings; and roofing, shingles, and siding. Today, asbestos-containing
products must be labeled.
It is not possible to unquestionably determine if a material contains
asbestos without performing laboratory tests. However, materials labeled
as containing asbestos and materials suspected as such should be monitored
in the home to prevent potential exposure. In general, if the known or
suspected asbestos-containing material is in good condition, it is usually
best to leave it alone. If disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos
fibers, which can be inhaled into the lungs and increase the risk of disease.The
material should be checked regularly for signs of deterioration and/or
damage without disturbing it. A professional is needed to remove or repair
asbestos-containing materials that are damaged or will be disturbed during
a home improvement project.
The federal government recognizes asbestos as a health hazard and treats
asbestos as a regulated substance. However, the use of asbestos is not
banned. Various voluntary agreements have been reached with manufacturers
to eliminate the use of asbestos in some materials (i.e. crayons and liners
for hand-held hairdryers). Additionally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission
(CPSC) enacted a policy in 1986 which required the labeling of all consumer
products that contain intentionally added asbestos and are likely to release
fibers under reasonable conditions of handling and use. In 1989, EPA established
a ban on all new uses of asbestos but allowed for the continuation of
uses established before this date. The majority of this ban was stopped
from taking effect by a 1991 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals. Today,
EPA encourages people to inquire about the presence of asbestos in a product
from its dealers, suppliers, and manufacturers and suggests laboratory
testing in some instances.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) - ToxFAQ
American Lung Association - Asbestos
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), EPA, and American Lung
Association - Asbestos
in the Home
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - Asbestos
Information Service: 1-800-4-CANCER [1-800-442-6237]
The National Cancer Institute provides the Cancer Information Service
to serve the public in understanding scientific cancer research findings.
- Su Familia (Your Family): 1-866-SU FAMILIA
Alliance for Hispanic Health sponsors this helpline to
offer Hispanic consumers free, reliable and confidential health information
in Spanish and English and help navigate callers through the health
- TSCA Assistance Information Service: 202-554-1404
Provides information on Toxic Substances Control Act regulations and
on EPA's asbestos program