Health Hazards of Asbestos

The presence of asbestos in building and automotive materials can be a hazard to lung health. Heavily regulated by OSHA and the EPA, it’s especially important for employers to reduce risk to their employees of exposure to asbestos.

What is it?

Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring mineral fibers chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. Because of its tensile strength, its resistance to heat, and its chemical degradation, it has been used as a fire retardant and heavily used in building materials like floor tiles, insulation, ship repair, and automotive parts.

Where else asbestos may be found:

  • Attic and wall insulation produced containing vermiculite
  • Vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Textured paint and patching compounds used on walls and ceilings
  • Walls and floors around wood-burning stoves protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets
  • Hot water and steam pipes coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape
  • Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets with asbestos insulation
  • Heat-resistant fabrics

While the use of it is not fully banned, the use of asbestos in products has dramatically decreased. The EPA has also taken steps to protect the public from exposure to asbestos.

What are the Hazards?

Disturbing asbestos-containing materials during home maintenance, demolition, repair, and remodeling can cause asbestos fibers to become airborne and increase exposure. The manufacturing of asbestos materials (textiles, friction products, insulation, and other building materials) and automotive brake work may also increase potential risk.

The fibers of asbestos are unseen by the naked eye and can be easily breathed into the lungs. This can create scarring the lung tissue, potentially leading to asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma, all of which can be life-threatening. It may take just a few days or it may take years for these symptoms to develop after exposure.

Doctors may suspect damage to lungs by asbestos and can diagnose by physical examination, chest x-ray, and pulmonary function tests.

What Should Employers Do?

Local TV stations have commercials from litigation-seeking attorneys scouring for people who may have mesothelioma from their exposure to asbestos. Employers need to protect themselves and their employees from not only the health hazards of asbestos, but the financial issues that can be caused by these health conditions. Especially when these risks can be reduced.

OSHA has specific standards for the construction industry, general industry, and shipyard sectors, and have requirements and suggestions for employers to reduce the risk of exposure to workers by hazard awareness training and exposure monitoring.

“Airborne levels of asbestos are never to exceed legal worker exposure limits. There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber.” (OSHA.gov)

OSHA recommends controlling work practices through administrative practices and regulating work areas, and providing personal protective equipment as ways for employers to protect employees’ exposure to asbestos. When legal limits and exposure times are exceeded, medical monitoring of workers is required.

OSHA’s website has requirements, non-mandatory recommendations, and EPA-accepted work practices for the construction industry. The website also covers standards for general industry and shipyard employment and construction.

For more detailed information regarding the safety measures associated with asbestos, visit the websites for the CDC, EPA, and OSHA.

References