By now, many people have heard the term “asbestos” associated with cancer and other diseases. However, they may not fully understand what asbestos is or how to know if they encounter asbestos. Asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, may not appear until many years after the initial asbestos exposure. Learning what to look for can help people avoid deadly diseases.
Asbestos is a class of naturally-occurring minerals that was used for numerous commercial purposes. There are multiple types of asbestos, including crocidolite, amosite, and chrysotile. Crocidolite is the least common but the most hazardous of the three and is characterized by its thin, blue fibers. Amosite presents as brown and is frequently linked to cancer diagnoses. The most commonly used type of asbestos is chrysotile, which accounted for 98 percent of asbestos production as of 1988 and features white, curly fibers layered on top of each other.
Asbestos has several attractive properties that made it extremely popular for decades: it is versatile, durable, and inexpensive. Asbestos is also highly resistant to heat and flame, which proved very useful in construction applications. When asbestos is disturbed, its fibers can become airborne and be inhaled or ingested. Once they get inside, the body cannot get rid of them, and they become lodged in the chest cavity where they damage the surrounding tissue, eventually forming tumors.
It can be difficult to tell when you are in the presence of asbestos. The tiny fibers that break away from asbestos materials are invisible to the naked eye. These fibers are very lightweight and can remain in the air undetected for days at a time. Piles of asbestos dust can be indistinguishable from other types of dust. Asbestos has no distinguishable odor and cannot be detected by smell.
Asbestos is friable, meaning that it breaks easily. Some asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) will crumble easily, which can be an indicator that asbestos is present. This is not a perfect test, however, as some ACMs will contain a bonding agent, also made with asbestos, that makes them non-friable. Non-friable ACMs are less likely to release fibers into the air, but they can still be dangerous if they become damaged.
In the 1980s, the U.S. began to heavily regulate the use of asbestos after the link between the substance and deadly illness was firmly established in the 1970s. Regulations mostly applied to new uses of asbestos, however, and some ACMs were still for sale after the new laws took effect. Homes and buildings constructed before 1989 may still feature ACMs. Some products, such as an electrical fuse box, may have a label warning of the presence of asbestos, but in most cases, identifying asbestos will require some guesswork.
There are many types of construction materials that were historically made with asbestos as an additive, including drywall, roof shingles, ceilings, and floor tiles. These products can become damaged as they undergo renovations or removal. Normal wear and tear can also cause these products to deteriorate, resulting in airborne particles.
The age of the building can be a clue as to whether it contains ACMs. Buildings built or renovated in the 1980s or earlier may have features that contain asbestos, though may have undergone renovations or repairs since then.
In some cases, the presence of asbestos may not present a serious risk. Asbestos is most dangerous when it is disturbed and its particles become airborne. Drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, and other large, non-friable materials that remain intact are safe, but they may become damaged later as they age. These products can be treated to prevent breakage, either by encapsulation, which involves coating the product with a special sealant, or enclosure, wrapping or covering it to form an airtight seal.
There are some industries in which workers might be more prone to encountering asbestos. Construction sites are one of the most common sources of workplace exposure, as the renovation or demolition of older buildings may uncover hidden sources of asbestos. Other workers involved in renovation or repair, including plumbers and electricians, may face a similar risk, as do boilermakers and steamfitters who handle pipe insulation. Flame-resistant asbestos was used in products such as fire blankets or rope that has been fireproofed, and firefighters may still encounter some of these products in the course of their work.
The only definitive way to know whether you are in the presence of asbestos is to test materials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has specific guidelines for the handling and removal of ACMs, and each state has its own regulations. Companies that are certified by federal or state agencies can safely extract samples of potential ACMs without creating an asbestos hazard. Professionals with the proper licenses can perform safe and successful asbestos abatement for those ACMs that need to be removed.
Asbestos abatement professionals wear personal protective equipment to prevent inhalation and keep their clothes and hair from being contaminated, and they have HEPA filters to keep the air clean as they work. Work areas are sealed off for the duration of the job, and all materials must be disposed of at special sites.
If you have been exposed to asbestos, you will not experience symptoms right away. People exposed to asbestos may develop mesothelioma, a rare, incurable, and deadly cancer infecting the lining of the lungs and chest cavity, 20 to 50 years after their exposure.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, call one of our experienced Philadelphia asbestos lawyers at Brookman, Rosenberg, Brown & Sandler for legal assistance. Call us at 215-569-4000 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Delaware County, Chester County, and Philadelphia County.