Asbestos is the general name used to describe several types of fibrous minerals. These minerals occur naturally and have been mined since the late 1800s for use in modern commercial industries. As asbestos fibers are strong, heat resistant, chemical resistant, and useful in providing heat insulation, their most common uses include addition to building products, insulation materials, and products intended for use in high-friction areas (such as in vehicle brake parts). Although there are six types of asbestos, the most common type found in buildings is chrysotile, also known as white asbestos. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 90-95% of all asbestos contained in buildings throughout the United States is chrysotile.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen, and inhalation of asbestos fibers is known to cause respiratory problems and lung diseases such as:
- Asbestosis – a lung disease in which inhaled fibers become stuck in the lung tissue, eventually causing scarring
- Mesothelioma – a cancer of the membranes lining the chest and lung cavity and/or the abdominal cavity
- Lung cancer – cancer of the lung tissue itself. A combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is known to greatly increase an individual’s risk of lung cancer.
All three of these diseases experience delayed development and the diseases may not manifest for 10 to 40 years after the initial asbestos exposure. Further, there is some indication that exposure to asbestos through inhalation and possibly ingestion may also be related to other cancers of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
Common Locations and Sources
In the home environment, asbestos can be found in numerous locations. Some of the most common areas are floor and ceiling tiles, plasters, insulations, adhesives, wallboard, joint compound, roofing materials, fireproofing materials, and cement products. Asbestos materials in the piping that transports drinking water can also be another source of exposure. Asbestos that is intact, undisturbed, and in overall good condition does not necessarily pose a problem to human health. Deterioration and damage releases fibers into the air. Asbestos fibers can enter the home environment as a result of infiltration of airborne asbestos from mines or factories; improper renovation or demolition of a building containing asbestos; and dust brought home on the skin or clothing of individuals exposed at work.
Asbestos may be found in a number of locations in the home. Until the 1970s, many building products and insulation materials contained asbestos, including insulation on steam and furnace pipes, ducts, and boilers; vinyl, rubber, or asphalt floor tiles; soundproofing or decorative material sprayed on walls or ceilings; and roofing, shingles, and siding. Today, asbestos-containing products must be labeled.
It is not possible to unquestionably determine if a material contains asbestos without performing laboratory tests. However, materials labeled as containing asbestos and materials suspected as such should be monitored in the home to prevent potential exposure. In general, if the known or suspected asbestos-containing material is in good condition, it is usually best to leave it alone. If disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos fibers, which can be inhaled into the lungs and increase the risk of disease.The material should be checked regularly for signs of deterioration and/or damage without disturbing it. A professional is needed to remove or repair asbestos-containing materials that are damaged or will be disturbed during a home improvement project.
The federal government recognizes asbestos as a health hazard and treats asbestos as a regulated substance. However, the use of asbestos is not banned. Various voluntary agreements have been reached with manufacturers to eliminate the use of asbestos in some materials (i.e. crayons and liners for hand-held hairdryers). Additionally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) enacted a policy in 1986 which required the labeling of all consumer products that contain intentionally added asbestos and are likely to release fibers under reasonable conditions of handling and use. In 1989, EPA established a ban on all new uses of asbestos but allowed for the continuation of uses established before this date. The majority of this ban was stopped from taking effect by a 1991 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals. Today, EPA encourages people to inquire about the presence of asbestos in a product from its dealers, suppliers, and manufacturers and suggests laboratory testing in some instances.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – ToxFAQ for Asbestos
American Lung Association – Asbestos
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), EPA, and American Lung Association – Asbestos in the Home
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Asbestos
Cancer Information Service: 1-800-4-CANCER [1-800-442-6237] The National Cancer Institute provides the Cancer Information Service to serve the public in understanding scientific cancer research findings.
Su Familia (Your Family): 1-866-SU FAMILIA or 1-866-783-2645
The National Alliance for Hispanic Health sponsors this helpline to offer Hispanic consumers free, reliable and confidential health information in Spanish and English and help navigate callers through the health system
TSCA Assistance Information Service: 202-554-1404
Provides information on Toxic Substances Control Act regulations and on EPA’s asbestos program