What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name for a group of naturally occurring minerals including chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. This silicate-based group of crystals was touted for hundreds of years as a miracle of nature for its resistance to extreme heat, electricity and chemical damage. As a result, asbestos was used as a flame retardant in thousands of products such as textiles, insulation, building materials, etc. In the 1970's, asbestos exposure was officially linked to thousands of cases of respiratory disease, and was therefore deemed hazardous.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Airborne asbestos fibers can penetrate deep into the lungs. Once inhaled, microscopic barbs make the asbestos fibers impossible to dislodge. It is generally agreed that asbestos fibers alter the lung tissue on a cellular level. The resulting damage to the respiratory system is permanent and almost instantaneous, even though symptoms may not be present for decades.

While it can cause a number of illnesses, the two most often associated with asbestos exposure are asbestosis and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is the chronic inflammation (and subsequent scarring) of lung tissue stemming from inhalation of asbestos. Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and eventual respiratory failure. Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that forms on the protective linings of the lungs, heart or abdominal cavity. Most often the cause is long term asbestos exposure. Symptoms include coughing up blood, chest pain, fluid in the lungs, and swelling of chest or abdomen. While some treatments have been developed for these diseases, the overall survival rates remain poor.

Who is at risk?

Most documented cases of asbestos-related disease can be traced to occupational exposure. Prior to the 1980's, asbestos was widely used in many industries. Between 1940 and 1979, nearly 28 million Americans were exposed to asbestos because of their occupation.

Unfortunately, it was not just the workers who were affected. Asbestos particles can remain on objects like clothing, skin or hair for hours. Workers can unknowingly expose family members through close contact with contaminated surfaces. Until recently, it was fairly common for family members of exposed workers to develop asbestos-related illnesses from this type of indirect exposure.

Recent legislation has banned asbestos in many countries, but the USA still allows limited use. Workers in shipyards, auto repair, construction, and plumbing are still at high risk of exposure. OSHA requirements state that certain precautions must be taken when working with or near asbestos to minimize the chances of asbestos-related illnesses.

Safety Precautions

Proper use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been proven to greatly reduce risks associated with asbestos exposure.

  • Clothing - Disposable protective clothing which completely covers arms, legs and hair needs to be worn at all times. Gloves suitable for chemical handling are needed as well.
  • Respirators - A respirator rated specifically for asbestos abatement by the NIOSH should be worn at all times.
  • Disposal - Remove all exposed garments and seal in a plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and indirect exposure. Dispose of bag according to local laws and regulations.