- What is asbestos?
- Where might I be exposed to asbestos?
- What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?
- When is asbestos dangerous?
- Do all people exposed to asbestos develop asbestos-related disease?
- How can I tell if there is asbestos inside or outside the house?
- What should I do if my home contains asbestos?
- What is Asbestos?Asbestos is a common name for specific types of naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals such as Chrysotile (white) and Amosite (brown/off-white). Asbestos fibers can be very small – up to 700 times smaller than a human hair. When suspended in the air, they can be easily inhaled and impose great health risks and serious illnesses such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Due to their tensile strength, fire-resistance and thermal-resistance and chemical resistance, asbestos has been used in avariety of building materials such as floor tiles, insulation, fire retardants, and more. Depending on what the product is, the amount of asbestos in asbestos-containing materials (ACM) may vary from 1% to 100%. Floor tiles, for example, may contain only a small percentage of asbestos. Additional reading about asbestos can be found on the EPA website.
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- Where might I be exposed to asbestos?Asbestos has been used in many commercial products, and are most commonly found in homes in the form of cement, door gaskets, soundproofing or decorative material, floor tiles, plaster, siding, and roofing shingles. Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have insulation made of asbestos. Generally speaking, any of the following materials installed before 1981 are presumed to contain asbestos:
- Sprayed on fire proofing and insulation in buildings
- White insulation for pipes and boilers
- Wall and ceiling insulations
- Ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Putties, caulks, and cements (such as in chemical carrying cement pipes)
- Roofing shingles
- Siding shingles on old residential buildings
- Wall and ceiling texture in older buildings and homes
- Joint compound in older buildings and homes
The EPA provides a list of places where asbestos can be found.
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- What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?When inhaled, airborne asbestos fibers will lodge in the lining of your lungs and may result in serious diseases. There are three primary resporitive diseases associated with asbestos exposure: asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Asbestosis – A serious, chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease where inhaled asbestos fibers aggravate lung tissues, causing them to scar. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling.
Lung Cancer – This disease causes the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are coughing and a change in breathing. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia.
Mesothelioma – A rare form of cancer, mesothelioma most often occurs in the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen, and in very rare cases the heart. Virtually all cases of mesothelioma are linked with asbestos exposure.
Cancer.org has more information on asbestos-related health hazards.
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- When is asbestos dangerous?When left intact and undisturbed, asbestos-containing materials are generally not considered to be harmful and do not pose any immediate health risks to people working or living in the affected building. Asbestos is hazardous when it is friable. The term “friable” means that the asbestos can be easily crumbled by hand, releasing the microscopic fibers into the air. For example, sprayed on asbestos insulation and fire-retartant is highly friable. Asbestos floor tiles are not.
When asbestos-containing materials get damaged or deteriorate over time, asbestos fibers get released into the air where they can be inhaled or ingested. Many of the fibers get trapped in the mucus membranes of the nose and throat where they can then be removed, but some may pass deep into the lungs or, if swallowed, into the digestive tract.
It is extremely important for both the home buyer and owner to be aware of the existence of asbestos. Preventative measures must be taken when performing building maintenance or remodeling in areas where asbestos-containing materials are present, even if there are no intentions to disturb it.
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- Do all people exposed to asbestos develop asbestos-related disease?Small amounts of asbestos are always present in the air, water, and soil. Exposure to such low levels usually will not result in any health issues stemming from asbestos. However, studies show that people who regularly work directly with asbestos or come into significant contact with the material on a regular basis will result in a higher chance of developing serious asbestos-related diseases. Two factors that generally determine its likelihood are the frequency and duration of asbestos exposure and also whether or not you smoke, which along with asbestos exposure can dramatically increase your risk of lung cancer by as much as 50 to 90 times compared to non-smokers who are not exposed to asbestos.
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- How can I tell if there is asbestos inside or outside the house?Unless specifically labeled, it is impossible to tell if something contains asbestos by simple observation. If the manufacturer or brand can be determined, they may also be able to verify whether or not asbestos was used. While you can never determine the presence of asbestos without the help of a certified professional, there are certain products that are recognizable that indicate a strong likelihood of asbestos. One such example is floor tiles measuring 9”x 9”. It is safe to say that all tiles of this size contain asbestos. If that is the case, make sure you never sand or attempt to remove the tiles on your own. Regular washing, waxing, and buffing of these tiles is generally safe. If stripping, be sure to use wet methods at a low RPM. Other examples of products with a high likelihood of containing asbestos include roofing and wall shingles, siding, and certain heating duct wraps. If in doubt, assuming that materials contain asbestos is always safer until it can be verified otherwise.
Inspectapedia.com has a library of photos and information on additional products that contain asbestos.
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- What should I do if my home contains asbestos?If the material in question is in good condition, leaving it undisturbed is recommended and most likely will not pose a significant health risk. Removing asbestos is generally considered more dangerous than leaving it intact. If it is deemed a problem, asbestos can either be sealed or covered, both serving to prevent asbestos fibers from being released into the air. Such repairs are much more affordable than removal, but if you do choose to have it removed later on it may increase the cost and difficulty of doing so. Make sure you do not try to clean, dust, sweep, vacuum, or perform any sort of home renovation that may disturb materials that may contain asbestos. Always have an asbestos professional assess the situation first before deciding on a course of action. For more information, visit the Asbestos in Your Home page on the EPA website.
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