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What Is Asbestos and Why Is It Dangerous?

Analysis of the compounds of a dangerous asbestos roof panels - concept image with magnifying glass
Analysis of the compounds of a dangerous asbestos roof panels - concept image with magnifying glass

Asbestos is largely a thing of the past, but it still comes back to haunt homeowners when it is found and must be removed. 

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral substance, which was once a common ingredient in construction materials because its fibers are soft and flexible, yet heat and corrosion-resistant. Asbestos is an effective insulator in its pure form and it can be added to other materials to make them stronger. Unfortunately, asbestos’ tiny fibers, which can be pulled into a fluffy consistency, are also what make it highly toxic to humans. The fibers can get trapped in the lungs and body, they never dissolve and are very hard for the body to dispel. 

Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?

The same characteristics that make asbestos useful also make it dangerous. The microscopic asbestos fibers can’t be smelled, tasted, or seen, so it’s hard to know if you’ve been exposed to it. When you are exposed to asbestos, the fibers become trapped in your body. Over time, these fibers cause inflammation, scarring, and eventually genetic damage to the body’s cells. Asbestos can lead to numerous types of diseases and illnesses, some of which are hard to recover from. Because of this, the mineral fibers are now recognized as a health hazard and regulated by both OSHA and the EPA.

While no asbestos exposure is ideal, being exposed to asbestos one time isn’t likely to cause issues. The problems occur when you’re exposed on a regular basis, over a long period of time, or to an intense concentration. With each exposure, the level of asbestos in your body accumulates, as it has no way to leave. Right now, there is no way to reverse the damage this causes.

How Can You Be Exposed to Asbestos?

Many people know that it’s possible to be exposed to asbestos in old buildings where it was used. However, because asbestos is not banned in the United States, you can still be exposed to it anywhere it is used. Specific products that may still contain asbestos are listed on the EPA’s website and include some of the following examples:

  • Heat-resistant fabrics
  • Walls and floors around wood-burning stoves
  • Vinyl floor tiles and the adhesives used
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Attic and wall insulation that contains vermiculite
  • Textured paint and patching compounds found on walls and ceilings
  • Pipes covered with heat-resistant material

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Asbestosis

Asbestosis, or diffuse pulmonary fibrosis, is a non-cancerous lung disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. When asbestos fibers get stuck in the lung, they cause damage and scarring. This damage makes it much harder for the lung to operate. Though asbestosis is not cancerous, it has no cure and can be deadly if left unchecked. Common symptoms of asbestosis include chest pain, loss of appetite leading to weight loss, and shortness of breath.

Long-term deterioration from asbestos fibers hardens the affected person’s lungs. This can deprive them of oxygen and eventually suffocate them. In some cases, lung deterioration can cause other health effects or illnesses to arise. Asbestosis may lead to heart failure or mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, rare cancer that can form in the linings of the lungs, heart, abdomen, or testicles.

Most cases of mesothelioma are not diagnosed until after cancer has spread to other areas in the body, making it harder to treat. However, if mesothelioma is caught early on, patients may be able to live several years after their diagnosis.

It can take 20-50 years of irritation from asbestos fibers before the symptoms of mesothelioma become noticeable. By this point, cancer may have spread throughout the body.

Those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma are encouraged to find out whether they may be eligible for compensation.

Lung Cancer

Asbestos may cause lung cancer if the fibers get trapped in the lungs and cause the formation of malignant (cancerous) tumors. 

Approximately 4,000 cases of lung cancer diagnosed each year are caused by asbestos exposure. While lung cancer can be deadly, there are treatment options if it is caught early on. Lung cancer tumors tend to appear as growths, meaning that they can be identified and removed, potentially increasing survival time.

Interstitial Fibrosis

Interstitial fibrosis is a general name that refers to a group of over 200 different chronic lung diseases and disorders, including asbestosis. These disorders are characterized by scarring of the tissue between the air sacs in the lungs, which is often caused by exposure to dangerous airborne materials like asbestos. The two main signs and symptoms for interstitial fibrosis consist of dry cough and Shortness of breath at rest or aggravated by exertion.

Once lung scarring occurs, it’s usually considered to be irreversible. While some medications may slow the damage of interstitial fibrosis, many people never regain full function of their lungs. Depending on the exact disorder, lung transplants may be an option for those suffering from interstitial fibrosis.

Is Asbestos Banned Today?

While 55 countries around the world have banned asbestos — including Germany, Italy, and Japan — asbestos is still not banned in the U.S. as of 2020. The EPA tried to ban asbestos completely in 1989, but a court decision overturned this ruling in 1991.

How Can You Protect Yourself?

The best way to protect yourself from asbestos-related diseases is to avoid exposure to asbestos. In the workplace, avoiding high-risk jobs may be impossible. Still, there are regulations put in place now to help. The EPA has been working to protect Americans from the hazards associated with exposure to asbestos, including banning certain asbestos-containing products and materials and the use of these products in the future.

At home, it may be smart to think about hiring someone to do an asbestos inspection and getting them to remove any found. Some other safety precautions to use in order to avoid exposure include:

  • Sealing off any renovation work area with plastic sheets
  • Turning on air conditioners when working
  • Wearing a mask, disposable coveralls, and gloves during debris handling
  • Using a HEPA filter when cleaning
  • Disposing of any potentially asbestos-containing waste safely

No matter the supposed “benefits” of asbestos, the deadly mineral should never be used — there are always alternatives.