Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has many useful properties when incorporated into building materials. With a high resistance to heat and fire, it makes an excellent insulator. It’s also lightweight, durable and flexible, and can even be woven into cloth or spun into yarn. For these reasons, asbestos has been widely used in many industries. Although it has been highly regulated by the EPA, asbestos can still be found in many common places. You may have heard of asbestos abatement projects occurring in your community – these are attempts to remove asbestos in the safest way possible. Asbestos is a much talked-about topic, especially in the United States, the UK, and Australia.
Asbestos, however, has a fatal flaw: it’s carcinogenic. When the raw asbestos materials, or products containing it, are damaged or disturbed, it releases into the surrounding air microscopic fibers which are harmful to humans. These fibers can be inhaled, and once inside the body they cause cells to replicate erratically and uncontrollably, leading to a rare form of cancer known as mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma strikes relatively few patients, but it is a terminal cancer with no known cure. One of the most devastating aspects of this disease is that it has a latency period of up to 50 years, meaning that people can have mesothelioma and not know it for decades.
Since asbestos is a mineral, the areas around asbestos and related mineral mines can be contaminated with the airborne fibers, and may lead to mesothelioma diagnoses in residents. There have been a remarkable number of cases diagnosed in the residents of the Libby, Montana area, where chemical giant W.R. Grace ran a large vermiculite mine for many years. Concentrations of asbestos particulate in areas that are not near mines are very low, however.
Anyone who works with asbestos should take safety precautions, such as wearing protective clothes and using respirators. And anyone who has previously been exposed to asbestos, either through their workplace or environmentally, needs to inform their doctor of that fact and schedule regular physical exams. Mesothelioma, like most cancers, can be more successfully treated the earlier it is diagnosed.
Homes and buildings built before the 1980s are at a much greater risk for containing asbestos. If you are worried about your possible risk, consider getting your air quality tested by a professional service, or finding a company who can test for asbestos specifically. If you’re remodeling your home soon, you’ll need to make sure any asbestos-containing materials are removed properly – it can actually be illegal to do it yourself. Invest in eco-friendly building materials and insulation. Not only will you be safe from asbestos, you’ll be helping the environment as well.
Article by Anna Clark