Asbestos has been used by mankind for several thousand years, with the earliest written reference to asbestos being dated to approximately 300 B.C. There are also many documented references from the Roman Empire. The use of asbestos in building materials accelerated in the 1890s. Advancements in refining and manufacturing enabled the use of asbestos to expand to hundreds of industrial and commercial applications.
While these asbestos-containing products were (and still remain) some of the best available for their respective uses, this increased use of asbestos has enlarged the size of the population exposed to asbestos. The health effects associated with occupational and non-occupational asbestos exposure can create severe human diseases. Although asbestos continues to be used worldwide, the potential impact of these asbestos-caused diseases has motivated public health authorities of the United States to control the use of asbestos. Ongoing federal and state programs oversee efforts to prevent environmental release and abate existing asbestos sources.
Understanding, acceptance and voluntary compliance with federal and state regulations and recommended procedures regarding asbestos will prevent citations and fines, and tremendously reduce the risk of asbestos exposure.
EPA Recommendations on Asbestos Removal
Because the potential for an asbestos fiber release into the environment occurs when the asbestos containing material is disturbed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not recommend that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) be removed for the sole purpose of removing the asbestos. EPA recommendations are to disturb ACMs only when necessary in the performance of operational and maintenance tasks, renovations and demolition activity. All applicable regulations and procedures must be adhered to, regardless of the reason for the disturbance.
What is asbestos?
The term asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals. The most common types of asbestos minerals in this group are chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. Chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite are the primary varieties used in commercial and industrial applications. Asbestos was found to be useful in many applications because it is insulating, fireproof, heat-resistant and chemically inert.
How might I be exposed to asbestos?
While asbestos can enter the environment from weathered natural mineral deposits, our greatest concern for exposure in the workplace is fiber releases from manmade asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) include products such as floor tiles, adhesives, roof shingles, cements, acoustical and structural insulations, plumbing and electrical insulations and automotive brakes. Asbestos fibers may be released into the air when these products are disturbed.
How do asbestos fibers enter and leave the body?
The greatest concern regarding asbestos exposure is airborne asbestos fibers. Breathing asbestos-containing air into the lungs will create the greatest potential for asbestos-related disease. Some of the asbestos fibers reaching the lungs are exhaled as we breathe, and others are coughed from the lungs, but the fibers reaching the deepest air passages of the lungs can produce the greatest damage.
The digestive system can be exposed to asbestos fibers from drinking water, mucus cleared from the lungs and from eating food containing settled airborne asbestos fibers. A small number of fibers may penetrate the cells that line the digestive system, but only a few will reach the bloodstream and be eliminated in the urine. Those fibers remaining in the digestive tract cells create a potential for asbestos-related disease.
Asbestos fibers contacting the skin rarely pass through the skin into the body.
How can asbestos affect my health?
Information on human health effects of asbestos comes mostly from long-term studies of people (primarily miners, manufacturing workers and construction trade workers) exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Persons who inhale asbestos may develop a slow buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs. This condition is called asbestosis. This scarred tissue impairs the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen for the body. This is a serious disease and can eventually lead to disability and death. Those who inhale asbestos also have increased chances of developing fatal lung cancer or mesothelial cancer. These asbestos-related diseases will not appear immediately, but may take 10 to 50 years to develop following exposure.
Does exposure to asbestos automatically mean I will develop an asbestos-related disease?
No. Asbestos exposure and asbestos-related disease is much like smoking and smoking-related disease. Exposure increases the risk, but does not automatically mean that an individual will develop a related disease. However, it does appear that exposure to high amounts of asbestos through either long-term exposure and/or high concentrations is more dangerous. Research is currently underway to better determine the risks of short-term and low-concentration exposure to asbestos.
Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed to asbestos fibers?
The most common test used to determine if you have been exposed to asbestos is a chest x-ray. The x-ray cannot detect the asbestos fibers themselves, but can detect early signs of lung disease caused by asbestos exposure. A pulmonary function test (PFT), which determines lung capacity, is another useful test in determining early signs of lung disease. Periodic medical examinations including a chest x-ray, PFT and a review of asbestos-based risk factors can be effective. Asbestos risk factors include length, levels and frequency of asbestos exposure and smoking history. The combined impact of cigarette smoking and asbestos fiber exposure greatly increases the chances of lung disease.
Should I be alarmed when I see a warning for asbestos?
You should not be alarmed by warnings, but do respect them. Understand that the purpose of the warning is informational, and that a danger exists if item is misused or mistreated.
I think I have asbestos in my home. Do I need to do anything about it to protect my health?
Most of the time, the answer to this question is “no.” The most common asbestos-containing materials used in the home are floor tile, roofing and siding. These materials are very strong and don't readily crumble and release asbestos fibers unless subjected to extremely strong forces. Occasionally, other materials such as pipe insulation and thermal insulation are used in home construction. If you believe you may have these types of materials in your home, and you are considering renovation or demolition of the structure, you should seek the help of an asbestos consultant to aid you in determining the proper actions you need to take.
I am going to perform a renovation and/or demolition to my business building. Is there anything I should know about asbestos before I begin this project?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) requires that a survey be performed to determine the presence of asbestos in a building before any renovation or demolition work begins. In Texas, we also have the Texas Asbestos Health Protection Rules (TAHPR), which apply to public buildings. The Texas Department of Health (TDH) enforces TAHPR, and is also delegated by the EPA, the authority to enforce NESHAP regulations. All of these regulations also require that notification be made before the start of any renovation or demolition project. In addition, TAHPR contains further requirements regarding licensing of companies and individuals that perform surveys and asbestos removal.
What asbestos-related work requires a company and/or individual to be licensed?
TAHPR requires licensing in the following categories: contractors, project supervisors, workers, consultants, management planners, inspectors, air monitors, laboratories, transporters and training providers. To obtain a license, you must provide proof of appropriate training. All training and licensing is valid for one year.