Older Americans, who grew up in older homes, attended school in older buildings, or worked in buildings that were constructed in the late 1800’s to the earlier part of the 1900’s are no strangers to asbestos. In centuries past, asbestos proved to be more functional than dangerous. Today, asbestos is rarely known for its once industrial uses, but rather as a potentially deadly fiber that is hard to get rid of. While asbestos is dangerous and life-threatening to some, it’s important to know of the risks and how to keep your life and your environment as asbestos-free as possible.
What is Asbestos?
People don’t really understand what asbestos actually is. Most just assume that it’s extremely toxic and should be avoided at all costs. Asbestos is not just one specific thing, but rather a group of naturally fibrous minerals that have specific physical and chemical properties. Such properties make asbestos very strong and resistant to acid and heat. Asbestos is not considered dangerous unless it is broken down or manipulated from its natural form, which means that once it has been mined it becomes more dangerous as particles become airborne.
Asbestos was first mined in the U.S. around the late 1800’s; the first large scale operation in Georgia in 1894. Domestic production continued for a century and the last mine closed in 1993. During the time of production, asbestos was used in common building materials such as floor tiles, siding, roofing, and insulation. Additionally, it was used for its heat resistant properties in cloth and other building materials and products.
Asbestos is particularly dangerous if asbestos-containing products are damaged, allowing particles to float throughout the air. Once asbestos particles are unknowingly inhaled, especially over a prolonged period of time or with frequency, health problems such as deadly lung diseases like mesothelioma occur.
Who’s at Risk?
According to the National Institute of Health, anyone who was employed for a prolonged period in the mining, milling, making, or the installation of asbestos products before the late 1970s, is at a higher risk for asbestos-related lung diseases than other age or occupational demographics. High-risk occupations include:
– Miners (who mined asbestos)
– Aircraft and Auto Mechanics (asbestos was used in the production of parts such as brakes)
– Building Construction Workers (many building materials were built with asbestos to make the materials more heat resistant)
– Shipyard Workers or Naval Officers
– Railroad Workers
– Firefighters (since 9/11, more firefighters are exhibited asbestos-related diseases during rescue efforts)
Additionally, family members who shared a living space with someone who worked with asbestos may be at risk for asbestos-related diseases due to the particles breathed in and carried from clothing and other work-related materials.
What is the Risk?
Unfortunately, asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma have no cure. According to the National Cancer Institute, the severity of an asbestos-related lung disease will depend on the level of exposure. When you visit your doctor, after the first signs or symptoms of a potential lung disease ( such as pain in the chest, wheezing, shortness of breath, unusual lumps in the abdomen or chest), the doctor will ask you questions pertaining to your asbestos exposure. How long were you exposed to asbestos, how frequently, and how often were you in close/direct contact? Do you or have you smoked tobacco? (Smoking increases your risk of asbestos-related lung disease if you worked with asbestos). Did you wear proper safety gear?
Is My Home Safe?
Many people who live in older homes are afraid of living in an asbestos-filled environment. Unless your home is deteriorating, you are likely to be safe from the dangers of asbestos, especially if the asbestos material is intact. If you suspect that your home is built with materials containing asbestos, do not attempt to remodel or remove materials yourself. Contact asbestos removal specialists, who are trained to spot dangerous materials and are able to remove them without causing further damage to your health or your environment. If possible, you want to remove all asbestos from your home, but you don’t need to panic right away.
Asbestos is dangerous, but it still surrounds us in some shape or form, every day. While organizations, like the EPA, is striving to educate people and stopping the spread of harmful asbestos, it may take years to get rid of asbestos as a whole. The best way to stay ahead in regards to asbestos is to do your research, safely assess the condition or your home, and get medical attention immediately if you experience any asbestos-related disease symptoms. Don’t let the seemingly toxic world surrounding you keep you from experiencing a good quality of life.