Coming Into Contact With Asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can release microscopic fibers into the air when disturbed. If inhaled or ingested, these fibers become lodged in the mesothelium or thin lining that covers the chest, abdomen, and heart cavities. Over time, prolonged exposure can cause inflammation and may develop into cancerous tumors, also known as mesothelioma.
Structures built between the 1930s and the 1980s likely contain the mineral in some form. Asbestos was used in thousands of consumer products that were used in the construction of buildings across the country. Today, the carcinogenic material is still found in many structures, exposing asbestos to people in their homes, workplaces, and schools:
- Air duct coverings
- Automobile clutches and brakes
- Door gaskets
- Exterior window panels
- Floor and walls around wood-burning stoves
- Heat-resistant fabrics
- Hot water and steam pipes coated with asbestos material
- Oil, coal furnaces, and door gaskets with asbestos insulation
- Popcorn ceilings
- Roofing and siding shingles
- Textured paint and patching compounds on walls and ceilings
- Vinyl floor tiles, vinyl sheet flooring, and adhesives
- Water tanks
If you’re the owner, manager, or contractor of a structure with the hazardous material inside, it’s your responsibility to ensure adequate asbestos removal. It’s illegal otherwise, even accidentally, and companies can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for corporate negligence.
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Some imported brake pads and clutches in the United States contain small amounts of the mineral. When products located in a vehicle, such as brake disks, drums, and wheels are removed, mechanics are exposed to asbestos dust. These dust particles are often microscopic, putting automotive professionals at risk of inhaling the mineral’s toxic particles.
Exposure in Schools
The toxin is commonly found in schools built before the 1980s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that most primary, secondary and charter schools in the United States contain asbestos. Schools containing the mineral commonly used it for insulation, building materials, ceiling tiles, and pipes.
When school buildings undergo renovations or repairs, it may disturb the asbestos already present in the structure and release fibers into the air. Anyone working in the building, including students, faculty, and staff risk exposure. To prevent the risk of airborne fibers, special training is required when maintenance is done to areas containing asbestos so that removing the carcinogen will not expose its fibers. The mineral can also be disturbed by student activities, such as damaging material containing the toxin through physical activities, like sports.
In 1987, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) required EPA to establish regulations that called for local educational agencies, public and private, to inspect their school buildings for the toxin embedded in building materials and develop plans to prevent or reduce hazards. Under AHERA, all public-school districts and private schools are required to notify parents, teachers, and employees about asbestos-related activities.
Exposure in Homes
Federal law does not require the seller of a home to disclose that their home contains asbestos, putting potential buyers at risk of exposure. Homes built as late as 2004 may also be contaminated.
Roof cement, which was commonly used on homes, contains asbestos. Airborne dust can be released when roof cement is scraped and removed.
The toxin isn’t easily detected and requires specific laboratory testing. A professional collects the material and sends it to an accredited lab. The EPA recommends suspected asbestos should not be interfered with unless it has been disturbed by damage or renovation.
Common places around the home that may contain the toxin are floor and walls around wood-burning stoves, popcorn ceilings, textured paint, and insulation.
Vermiculite is a solid chemical compound (mineral) that has been expanded through heat. The mineral is naturally mixed with other materials in its rock form which has been found to contain traces of the mineral.
Vermiculite’s versatility has made it useful in multiple industries including agriculture, horticulture, and industrial. Vermiculite is less likely to generate airborne dust, yet there are several products in which the mineral can be found to contain asbestos:
- Acoustic Panels
- Brake lining
- Open fireplaces
- Steel and pipe fire retardant
Exposure in the Workplace
The mineral found its way into the workplace because of its multifaceted benefits like strength, insulation, and resistance. The mineral was predominantly used in industrial buildings between the 1940s and the 1970s.
The EPA declared asbestos a carcinogen in 1977, and workers who had direct contact with the material were required to have respiratory protection around the substance. This change reduced exposure and limited usage to certain jobs such as insulators and pipefitters.
However, the mineral was used in many industrial workplaces where people with multiple job skills could have come into contact with the toxic dust during the peak of its exposure:
- Auto mechanics
- Asbestos plant manufacturers
- Boiler workers
- Brick masons
- Construction workers
- Demolition workers
- Drywall workers
- Factory workers
- First Responders/ EMTs
- Industrial plant workers
- Machine operators
- Mill workers
- Military personnel and veterans
- Power Plant workers
- Railroad workers
- Shipyard workers
- Steel mill workers
- Tile setters
Exposure in the Military
The United States Military relied heavily on asbestos-containing products. The carcinogen was used to insulate engine rooms on Navy, as a brake liner on Army vehicles and aircraft, and in military barracks where service members lived and slept. Military veterans were exposed to toxic dust and fibers for decades. The mineral was used in a majority of military buildings, and can still be found in military shipyards:
- Air ducts
- Around boilers
- Ceiling tiles
- Cement roofs
- Gutters and pipes
- Loose-fill insulation
- Panels in fire doors
- Partition walls
- Sprayed ceilings, walls, columns, and beams
- Water tanks
Contaminated Air and Water
Previous studies have shown that fibers may be released into the air when material containing asbestos is disturbed. Exposure happens once the substance becomes airborne. Fibers can be deposited into air, vegetation, and water, especially near mining sites.
According to the EPA, the town of Libby, Montana, contains the highest concentrated levels of the mineral. The once-massive asbestos-producing community is home to a vermiculite mine. The whole population of Libby (up to 60,000 people) came into contact with the carcinogen for decades, including schools, homes and community buildings.
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