Asbestos in the Home
Author: Ashley Sutter
This case study is part of a collection of pages developed by students in the 2012 introductory-level Geology and Human Health course in the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University. Learn more about this project.
Asbestos: The Basics
This web page it designed to provide easy access to information about asbestos in order to spread awareness. Asbestos has become a major environmental health hazard. It has been used in many industrial and commercial products that can be found in the home and in the place of work. When asbestos is inhaled it causes sever damage to the lungs which can lead to major health problems including emphysema and, in cases of high exposure, lung cancer.
Asbestos is actually a name given to a group of substances that are very similar. These are chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, thermolite, and actimolite. All form long knife-like fibers when they are broken up and do not dissolve in water and therefor the body.
Here is a good link to the USGS Mineral Information Sheet on Asbestos.
Sources of Asbestos in the Home
There are many sources of Asbestos within the home from the insulation in the walls and ceiling to the tiles on a kitchen floor. Asbestos has a high tensil strength that allows it to be flexible and has a high resistance to heat and most chemicals, which made is why it was used in many products. Asbestos is also found in some fire-proof clothing, roof coatings, clutch facings (commercial and industrial), asbestos friction products, roll board, asbestos-cement flat sheet, flooring felt, non-roof coatings, disc brake pads, sheet and beater-add gaskets, asbestos-cement pipe, pipeline wrap, drum brake linings, commercial corrugated specialty paper, asbestos-cement shingles, roofing felt, automatic transmission components, brake blocks, and millboard. Many of these products may still be in use. However, if these objects are found within a house and are still in good condition it is best to leave them be.
For more on identifying asbestos in the home visit CPSC How to Identify Materials that may contain Asbestos.
Transport of Asbestos
The most common way for asbestos to travel in the environment is by wind or water. No forms of asbestos decompose naturally, so build up occurs in water ways and in the atmosphere after a disturbance occurs, such as mining or a disturebed product. When asbestos is disturbed, it breaks into smaller pieces that can then enter the body through respiration and ingestion. During respiration the asbestos enters the lungs where it cuts the lung tissue leaving scar tissue and parts of the lung unusable. When ingested, asbestos particles pass through the body while causing little to no damage.
Regulation of Asbestos
In 1989,the EPA regulated that no new asbestos was to be used without being sealed in new buildings and all schools were to be inspected for high asbestos concentrations or exposures. The EPA also placed heavy regulation on any new industrial production. They have also set a limit of 7 million fibers per liter as the legal limit of exposure in any space. OSHA has also set a limit for those working with and around asbestos to 100,000 fibers for 8 hours a work week. They have also set forth regulations for when levels exceed the allowed ammount. OSHA requires that employers provide any safety equiptment to protect employees and provide periodical medical checkups.
The OSHA asbestos fact sheet gives more information about the rules and regulations that employers must follow.
Effects of Asbestos on Human Health
Asbestos is only dangerous to humans when it has been broken into microscopic particles because these particles can enter the lungs causing many health problems. The first of these is Asbestosis. This is when Asbestos particles enter the lung and get lodged in the very narrow Bronchioles causing sections of the lung to be irritated. Eventually the lungs build up scar tissue and causes Emphysema. Emphysema is when the lung can no longer function to its full potential causing shortness of breathe. If there are very high exposures to asbestos, it may cause numerous forms of cancer, which takes anywhere from 10 to 20 years to develop and present itself. The cancer most associated to asbestos is Mesothelioma, which is cancer of the linings of the lungs. There are some studies that suggest asbestos exposure is related to gastrointestinal, colorectal, kidney, esophagus, gallbladder, and throat cancers. The risk of getting these cancers are also much greater for those who smoke tobacco products.
Here is a good link that gives you information on the lung cancer Mesothelioma.
Prevention or Mitigation
If unsure about asbestos in the home, contact the EPA in order to have a test done. If there is known asbestos that is in good condition leave it undisturbed. If it is left undisturbed, particles should not be released into the environment. If asbestos has been disturbed or is in poor condition contact a professional to have it removed. Check all known asbestos sites frequently by examining them for any damage but do not touch them as this will only disturb them further and increase health risks.
Check the EPA State and Regional contact list for more information about who to contact about getting tested.
This link gives you a general overview of Asbestos and its past uses. The Encyclopedia of Earth- Asbestos
This site gives a little more information about where asbestos is found in the home and in the work environment. ATSDR information on Asbestos
This link gives you a detailed look at the affects of Asbestos. NACHI-Health Affects of Asbestos
This site gives the links to the information provided about asbestos by the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA Asbestos links
This link gives you information about cancers caused by Asbestos. Cancer caused by Asbestos
This link gives you specific information about Mesothelioma Mesothelioma
This site gives details about how to identify and how to deal with Asbestos found in the home. How to deal with Asbestos in the Home
Another useful link that breaks down what asbestos is. OSHA basic information on Asbestos
This link give OSHA's rules and regulations for employers. OSHA asbestos fact sheet