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 US 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, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Asbestosis is a lung disease in which inhaled fibers become stuck in the lung tissue, eventually causing scarring. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the membranes lining the chest and lung cavity and/or the abdominal cavity. Lung cancer is 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. For information on other cancer risks in the home environment, please see Cancer Risks.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Sources and Additional Information:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – ToxFAQ for Asbestos – www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts61.html
American Lung Association – www.lungusa.org/site/pp.asp?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=35368
CPSC, EPA, and American Lung Association – Asbestos in the Home – www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/453.html
Environmental Protection Agency – www.epa.gov/asbestos