health effects of asbestos

Asbestos is a name given to a group of fibrous minerals that occur naturally. This thread-like substance is resistant to heat and chemicals, and it does not conduct electricity. Although banned in the late 1980s, it is a substance that has been used for many millennia. In fact, mummies were wrapped in an asbestos fabric to reduce decay.

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Is Asbestos Still a Concern?

Yes. Asbestos has been commonly used in construction materials in the United States since the late 1800s. All houses built before the 1970s — and some built during the `70s and `80s — pose a potential risk factor for asbestos exposure.

There are many different areas of your house they may contain asbestos, such as:

  • Shingles
  • Siding
  • Popcorn ceilings
  • Insulation (all types)
  • Linoleum backing
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Plaster
  • Paint
  • Duct tape on furnace seams

Health Hazards of Asbestos

Asbestos itself is not harmful to the human body, but breathing the fibrous particles into the lungs can cause several harmful effects.

Asbestos usually is introduced into the body as a fine dust. Removing shingles from your home should not be a problem, but if those shingles need to be broken or cut, then the dust particles can settle into your lungs. Once in the lungs the fibrous mineral can cause:

  • Ripping and scarring within the lungs.
  • Mesothelioma.
  • Other cancers.
  • Asbestosis.

Besides the more critical cases stated above, there are also symptoms that are less dire, including:

Asbestos exposure still affects Americans today. Of some 3,000 people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year, about 90% of cases are due to asbestos exposure. However, asbestos related cancers are even more deadly than mesothelioma. The majority of side effects related to asbestos exposure come from prolonged periods of exposure, mainly from jobs in industries that regularly handle products made of asbestos.

Could You Have Been Exposed to Asbestos?

In 1989, the United States passed legislation outlawing the use of asbestos in situations where it could be released into the air. Although these laws included regular inspections of existing asbestos materials, the use of asbestos in building materials rapidly declined. However, many people could still have been exposed to asbestos particles in the air if they worked in industries like firefighting, automotive brake repair, construction, fabric milling, shipbuilding, asbestos mining or milling, and building demolition.

In 2019, The United States passed more restrictions on the use of asbestos to ensure that products that are no longer on the market cannot return to commerce without strict evaluation. Today, the most likely risk of exposure may come from old asbestos products that have not yet been removed from your home, such as tiles, insulations, or siding.

How to Protect Against Asbestos

In most states, it is not illegal to remove asbestos from your own home. However, many states, counties, and cities have strict transportation and disposal requirements set into place, and these requirements are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Contractors are required by law to have the right tools, training, licensing, and certifications before starting a job requiring asbestos abatement. If you plan on removing the asbestos yourself, the first thing to do is to make sure there is asbestos present in your home.

Asbestos abatement companies are located in every major city. You can simply take a piece of the material you wish to remove and have one of these companies test for asbestos. Make an effort not to break the material in any manner that could produce excess amounts of dust and be sure to wear a ventilator and provide good ventilation.

If you decide to remove it yourself, the main concern is to limit the amount of dust created by the removal. You can prevent dust from releasing in the air by lightly spraying water over the areas where you need to work. Check with local authorities about how you can properly dispose of asbestos trash. Tools required for abatement will vary depending on what you are removing, but main tools to consider are:

  • Respirators with a p3 filter.
  • Masks.
  • Coveralls that are rated for asbestos.
  • Boots that are rated for asbestos.

Also, make sure there is good ventilation in the area where you are working, but at the same time you should restrict as much dust flow as possible. After the job, make sure to shower and thoroughly wash all clothing.

If you believe you have inhaled asbestos, contact the UPMC Pittsburgh Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Pittsburgh Poison Center

The Pittsburgh Poison Center is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide poison information and respond to emergencies. You can call 1-800-222-1222, 24 hours a day, for emergency help. We answer more than 100,000 calls each year from across Pennsylvania, at no cost to callers. Our staff of nurse specialists has extensive training in clinical toxicology. We also created a network of more than 70 hospitals throughout the state for consultation and follow-up treatment of poison exposure. For nearly 50 years, our symbol Mr. Yuk has helped to educate children and adults about poison prevention and poison center awareness. All stickers of Mr. Yuk carry important poison control phone numbers.