Asbestos is the generic name given to a group of minerals that tend to break down into a dust of microscopic fibers. It is a strong and heat-resistant mineral, once widely used, and is now known to cause injury and death to many who are exposed to it.
It can be found in just about any building constructed before 1980. Some items containing asbestos in your home include older duct tape, floor tiles, acoustic ceiling tiles or covering, roofing materials, exterior siding, insulation, fireproof boards and flues around wood burning stoves, and some appliances including toasters, broilers, slow cookers, waffle irons, dishwashers, and refrigerators.
The most common way for asbestos to enter the body is through breathing. Once small asbestos fibers get into the lungs, they can do harm in a number of ways.
Asbestos is generally not harmful in its natural state. In production, asbestos was typically reduced to a “friable” state – small, brittle fibers. Fine asbestos dust is a by-product of friable asbestos. Inhaled microscopic fibers remain in the body forever and are impossible to remove. It damages lung tissue when inhaled during consistent, long-term exposure, causing “asbestosis,” progressively limiting lung capacity and function. In extreme cases, it can cause mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer that is most often fatal. Symptoms generally do not appear for 10 to 30 years after the exposure.
Asbestos is known to cause:
Although there was anecdotal information available for centuries that indicated health problems associated with long-term exposure to asbestos, no definitive evidence about asbestos danger was forthcoming until the mid-20th century. Preliminary studies in the 1940s and 1950s caused concern. Scientific proof was established in the early 1960s.
Individuals exposed to asbestos on the job, through their home, during their military service or through a family member, should contact a physician regarding their asbestos exposure. A physical examination, including chest x-ray and pulmonary function tests of the lungs may be recommended to determine markers of asbestos exposure.
Experts have seen three waves of people at risk of disease:
No cure exists for asbestosis or other lung or pleural diseases caused by chronic exposure to asbestos. Treatments are available, however, to help remove any cancer that may be present and to reduce the symptoms of asbestos-related disease.
Asbestos became a major industry early in the 20th century. It was a common product, in great demand and widely used for decades. The carcinogenic properties were not known. As soon as definitive medical evidence of serious health risk was confirmed, governments around the world initiated action to prevent asbestos use and exposure. The EPA only requires asbestos removal in order to prevent significant public exposure to airborne asbestos fibers during building demolition or renovation projects.
For more information, see our page on Asbestos Diseases.