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How many older buildings are haunted by asbestos?

A recent story from New York City illustrates the dangers that many people face simply by living or working in the nation’s older buildings. It also shows how often people are unaware of the dangers. And it points out how building owners and managers often try to shortcut proper safety measures.

According to the New York Daily News, roughly 1,000 people may have been breathing carcinogenic asbestos fibers while working at a Brooklyn transit depot. That’s bad enough, but the report also suggested maintenance teams were aware of the asbestos and failed to treat it properly.

Airborne asbestos is a silent killer

Decades ago, manufacturers used asbestos in all kinds of products. The mineral offered great strength, heat resistance and fire resistance. So, builders used it extensively. Up through the 1970s, you could expect to find asbestos in:

  • Insulation
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Vinyl flooring and floor tiles
  • Shingles
  • Cement, brick and block mortar
  • Gaskets
  • Boiler insulation
  • Pipe insulation

And the list goes on. Nonetheless, builders stopped using asbestos in most of these materials after they faced overwhelming evidence that it could cause cancer. Most homes built since the 1980s are free of asbestos. But, of course, New York City houses more than a few older buildings, many of which still contain asbestos.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asbestos doesn’t pose a risk while the materials containing it remain intact. It only becomes a problem when the materials start to break down and become “friable,” meaning the fibers can crumble. When this happens, they can kick up into the air like dust. They can then get into people’s lungs or onto their clothes.

When they enter the body through the mouth or skin, asbestos fibers can linger for years. The human body can’t break them down, and these fibers often trigger abnormal cell growth—or cancerous tumors.

There are rules for asbestos in public buildings

The EPA enforces strict asbestos guidelines to minimize the threat of asbestos exposure. These guidelines include:

  • The testing of materials that may contain asbestos
  • The hiring of certified asbestos professionals for all asbestos removal and disposal

The most shocking part of the story about the asbestos in the Brooklyn transit depot is how transit authorities handled the discovery. The New York Daily Mail had reported on asbestos in the depot in September 2019. They found that many of the joints in the depot’s ventilation system contained cloth made with asbestos. These were intended to quiet the vents, but the fabric was starting to break down.

The Daily Mail’s reporting ought to have triggered a thoughtful response, but transit authorities didn’t properly remove the asbestos at that time. Instead, they made stop-gap efforts to cover it with duct tape or rubberized paint. Unsurprisingly, these “solutions” started to break down. By the time the Daily Mail revisited the story in August 2020, the depot needed to shut down at least one vent and call for professionals to remove the materials.

A lesson for us all

While the story most obviously and immediately affects the roughly 1,000 people who regularly worked in the depot, it has a much larger reach. New York City isn’t the only place in the United States where you can find older buildings. Nor is it the only place where some of the materials in those buildings may start breaking down.

If you live or work in an older building, it’s in your interest to understand how likely you are to suffer from asbestos exposure. If you can recognize and act upon the warning signs, you might be able to save yourself a great deal of future misery.

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