What is asbestos?
Asbestos is the name given to a group of six different fibrous minerals (amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, and the fibrous varieties of tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite) that occur naturally in the environment. Asbestos minerals have separable long fibers that are strong and flexible enough to be spun and woven and are heat resistant.
Because of its mechanical and thermal characteristics, asbestos has been used for a wide range of manufactured goods, mostly in building materials (roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products), friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts), heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, gaskets, and coatings. Some vermiculite or talc products may contain asbestos.
Where is the hazard?
The primary route of exposure to asbestos is through inhalation, however, it can also be ingested. The inhalation of asbestos fibers (which cannot be seen by the naked eye) puts workers at an increased risk for developing the following the following illnesses:
- Asbestosis — a serious, progressive disease associated with long-term exposure to asbestos that causes damage (called 'scarring') to lung tissue. The symptoms of the disease (like shortness of breath) can be managed under the care of a doctor.
- Lung cancer — Asbestos can result in the development of lung cancer and is one of the leading causes of all types of lung cancers among nonsmokers. Asbestos-exposed smokers have dramatically high rates of lung cancer.
- Malignant mesothelioma — a rare progressive cancer of the tissue lining the chest or abdomen for which asbestos and similar fibers is the only known cause.
- Gastrointestinal cancers — have been linked to ingestion of asbestos fibers.
How much asbestos causes illness?
Asbestosis has been associated with chronic exposure to high levels of asbestos. Asbestos workers (i.e., working 40 hours/week for 48 weeks/year) who are smokers, and who are not properly protected, have increased risk of developing lung cancers compared to non-exposed nonsmokers.
Most people do not become ill from the asbestos they are exposed to. Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long time period. There are no known acute effects associated with asbestos exposure. Symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, or tearing are more likely the result of allergies to dust or other airborne irritants.
People who become ill from asbestos are almost always those who are exposed on a day-to-day basis in a job where they work directly with the material. As a person's exposure to fibers increases, either by breathing more fibers or by breathing fibers for a longer time, that person's risk of disease also increases. It can take anywhere from 10 to 40 years for someone to develop an asbestos-related illness after their exposure. Disease is very unlikely to result from a single, high-level exposure or from a short period of exposure to lower levels.
How could I be exposed to asbestos, and how can I avoid it?
For the general public, the best way to avoid exposure is to avoid breathing in dust from friable asbestos containing materials (ACMs). As stated earlier, many building materials manufactured over a number of decades contain asbestos. At this time there is no comprehensive list of building materials that have been assessed for the presence of asbestos.
Therefore, many products found in campus buildings are presumed to contain asbestos.
- Floor tiles, floor tile mastics, plasters, roofing asphalts, drywall and other miscellaneous materials are presumed asbestos-containing materials (PACMs).
- If these PACMs are in good condition there is no risk of exposure to fibers even if the material actually contains asbestos.
- The university maintains a record of the locations of PACMs. When renovations are performed in these locations the PACMs are tested before work begins to determine if asbestos abatement is needed.
- If the material is “friable,” that is to say crumbling, or disintegrating to form a dust, there is potential for exposure. If building materials are found in a friable condition they should be tested for the presence of asbestos. If the test confirms the presence of asbestos, the material must be removed by qualified personnel.
What can I expect to see when asbestos is removed from my workplace?
When asbestos removal work begins the preparation of the job site and the protective equipment worn by contractors can be frightening to behold. Asbestos workers face chronic exposure over the span of their career. As such the procedures they follow ensure their long term health and safety as well as the health and safety of their clients.
To protect your health and safety the contractor will take the following precautions at the job site:
- The work site will be clearly marked as a hazard area. Do enter the area until work is completed.
- The building’s heating and air conditioning system will be closed off from the work area if it contains supply or return air.
- The work area will be sealed from the rest of the building using plastic sheeting and duct tape to create a physical barrier that contains dust. For some repairs, such as pipe insulation removal, plastic glove bags may be adequate.
- A wetting agent (water) will be applied to the asbestos material with a hand sprayer that creates a fine mist before removal. Wet fibers do not float in the air as easily as dry fibers and will be easier to clean up.
- The material to be removed will not be broken into small pieces. This could release asbestos fibers into the air.
- All ACMs, disposable equipment and clothing used in the job will be placed in sealed, leak-proof, and labeled heavy-duty plastic bags. The work site should be visually free of dust and debris.
- Workers will avoid spreading or tracking asbestos dust into other areas.
- Upon completion, the entire area will be thoroughly cleaned with wet mops, wet rags, sponges, or HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) vacuum cleaners.
The following guidelines from OSHA detail the precautions taken by asbestos removal professionals to protect their health.
- Workers involved in demolition and removal of ACMs wear respiratory protection (a NIOSH-approved respirator such as an N-95 or more protective respirator).
- Workers will wear the respirator while working inside established work zones.
- The respirators are not required outside of the established work zones as the containment methods make this unnecessary.
You can find more information about asbestos from the Environmental Protection Agency at www2.epa.gov/asbestos.