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Environmental Health - Information - Asbestos

 

What is it?

Asbestos is a generic term used for a group of naturally-occurring silicate minerals that can breakdown into individual fibers. Asbestos fibers may be up to 700 times smaller than a human hair. Because they are so small, the human eye cannot see individual fibers and they can stay suspended in the air for hours or even days. Asbestos fibers are not combustible, have high tensile strength, good thermal and electrical insulating properties, are moderately resistant to chemicals, and have good frictional properties. They are durable, flexible, strong and resistant to wear. Six types of asbestos minerals were commercially used. They include chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. By the 1970s, asbestos was used in over 3000 materials and primarily used in building products.

It is estimated that 1.3 million employees in construction and general industry face significant asbestos exposure on the job. The most major exposures occur in the construction industry, particularly during renovation and demolition projects. Employees involved with the manufacture of asbestos containing products (such as textiles, friction products, insulation, and other building materials) and those doing automotive brake and clutch repair work are also likely candidates for exposure.

Asbestos products present little problem as long as they are in good condition and not disturbed or misused. They only pose a hazard when they release fibers into the air. Virtually all asbestos products will release fibers if they are cut, sanded, abraded or drilled. Materials that have high asbestos content and use brittle binders such as plaster, cement or starch are generally classified as “friable” and pose the highest exposure risk. Friable materials can be easily crumbled and reduced to powder by hand pressure. Asbestos-containing spray insulation (often found as insulation on pipes and boilers), millboard and preformed insulation products are examples of some materials that are often friable. These materials and were often used in homes built between 1930-1970. Contrary to popular belief, the use of asbestos has not been totally banned in the United States. Asbestos-is still used in products such as vinyl flooring, roof shingles and asphalt adhesives (e.g., tile cement).

What are the health effects?

Asbestos fibers enter the body primarily through inhalation (breathing) or ingestion (eating, drinking). Many of the fibers will become trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat where they can then be removed, but some may travel deep into the lungs, or, if swallowed, into the digestive tract. Once they are trapped in the body, the fibers can cause health problems. These health problems take years to develop. Diseases that have been attributed to asbestos exposure include asbestosis, mesothelioma and gastrointestinal cancers. Asbestos workers (i.e., working 40 hours/week - 48 weeks/year) who were smokers and not properly protected, have increased risk of developing lung cancers. The incidence of lung cancer in people who are directly involved in the mining, milling, manufacturing and use of asbestos and its products is much higher than in the general population. It is not known what amounts of asbestos are hazardous over what periods of time. It is therefore important that exposures to asbestos be kept as low as possible.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a non-cancerous disease that takes many years to develop. The disease is usually caused by heavy, sustained exposure to asbestos over a period of years (e.g. a longtime worker at an asbestos textile plant) and/or intense exposure during a shorter period (e.g. a worker in the boiler and engine rooms of ships under construction in the Second World War.). The underlying disease process of asbestosis is not yet fully understood, but it appears to be related to fiber irritation and inflammation of the lung. The body attempts to neutralize these foreign fibers in various complex ways, and some or all of these processes lead to further inflammation and cell damage. Eventually a fibrosis or scar tissue develops in the interstitial spaces around the small airways and alveoli. Asbestosis often exists without any symptoms until its eventually detected during an x-ray. Asbestosis symptoms typically include shortness of breath, coughing and a dry crackling sound in the lungs when inhaling. As the disease progresses, the symptoms can worsen. In unusual cases, it can be fatal.

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that most often occurs in the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen, and (rarely) heart. Approximately 200 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. On average, 35-40 years elapse before the onset of disease. Those who inhaled asbestos fibers at a younger age are therefore more likely to develop mesothelioma than a person who inhaled fibers at an older age. The early symptoms of mesothelioma can resemble pneumonia, including shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, persistent cough, chest and abdominal pain. Often, there is fluid buildup between the pleura and chest cavity (called pleural effusions), which leads to dyspnea (shortness of breath) and sometimes pain. Some people may not have any symptoms. Virtually all cases of mesothelioma are linked with asbestos exposure. Workers at asbestos mines, mills or factories, shipyards using asbestos, asbestos insulation manufacturing plants or asbestos insulation installers have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma. People who lived with someone who worked with asbestos, lived near an asbestos mine or factories that released large numbers of asbestos fibers also have an increased risk for developing mesothelioma.

How do I know if I have asbestos and who can test for it?

It is not possible to identify asbestos just by looking at it. Plumbers, building contractors, and heating specialists who have extensive experience with these materials can often correctly guess whether a material contains asbestos. However, laboratory testing is the only way to verify a suspect material contains asbestos. A list of laboratories certified to do bulk asbestos testing can be found at http://ts.nist.gov/Standards/scopes/plmtm.htm.

What should I do if my house has asbestos?

Any material suspected to be asbestos should be treated as such until proven otherwise. You should hire a qualified inspector to check your building for Asbestos Containing Materials (ACM) prior to any renovation or demolition activities. It is often best to encapsulate or leave the ACM in place because disturbing it may release fibers that could be inhaled. Removal or encapsulation should not be attempted by the homeowner. If friable ACM is present, you should inspect it regularly for evidence of missing or fallen sections, loose hanging pieces or other such damage. If the ACM is damaged, it can be repaired rather than removed. Repairs should only be made by a trained professional.

Asbestos removal involves stringent containment, product handling, disposal, post-removal cleaning, encapsulation and air sampling requirements. These requirements involve special equipment and detailed training that generally is too expensive and time-consuming for a homeowner to acquire for a one-time job. Removal is also the last resort because it poses the most risk of fiber release if not done properly. It is recommended that a professional be consulted to work with asbestos.

In choosing a professional to do work with asbestos, keep in mind that most home repair or remodeling contractors are not certified or equipped to work safely with asbestos. If you hire someone who is not qualified, not only have you potentially subjected yourself and your family to serious health dangers, but there can also be legal problems because of local, state, or federal laws regarding environmental and workers' health protection. If the contractors do not have the right equipment and expertise and do the work improperly, they will spread asbestos fibers throughout your home and the neighborhood. They may create an asbestos hazard where none existed or make an existing situation worse. References should be required from the contractor's former customers before an agreement for removal is made. The contractor or homeowner should contact the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to determine the relevant notification, removal, and disposal requirements.

Do I need a permit to remove asbestos?

The Volusia County Health Department does not regulate the removal of asbestos. It is recommended that you contact the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)District Office or Local Pollution Control Agency to determine if your building will need a permit.

I think my neighbor may be illegally removing/dumping asbestos. What do I do?

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulates asbestos removal. If you wish to file a complaint or report an air pollution problem contact the DEP District Office or Local Pollution Control Agency. Asbestos removal must follow specific work practices. The DEP regulations require the owner of the building and/or the operator to notify the applicable DEP District Office or Local Pollution Control Agency before any demolition, or before renovations of buildings that contain a certain threshold amount of asbestos or asbestos containing materials.


Page last updated: 07/9/13