For many years, people considered asbestos a miracle fiber. It is strong, malleable and resilient, as well as heat- and fire-resistant. However, it is also a deadly carcinogen. We now know that exposure can lead to such diseases as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. So, how can people limit their exposure?
Thanks to its popularity in previous years, asbestos is nearly everywhere. That means you may not be able to avoid the mineral entirely. But you can take steps to reduce your risks. Even though researchers have not yet identified a safe level of asbestos exposure, most harmful outcomes result from prolonged or intense exposure. These three tips may help you avoid the worst outcomes.
Stay safe on the job
Most people who get sick from asbestos-related diseases can trace their exposure to their jobs. While there are fewer of these jobs now than previously, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently identified several that faced significantly higher-than-average risk. These include:
- The chlor-alkali industry
- Manufacturers of friction brakes and sheet gaskets
- Auto mechanics
- Oil rig workers
- Chemical manufacturers
- Construction workers
- Asbestos abatement professionals
People working in these fields—or other jobs linked to asbestos exposure—want to understand and follow the proper safety protocols. Because the EPA now regulates asbestos as a toxic substance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set forth clear worksite guidelines for all those who deal with asbestos on a regular basis.
Safeguard your home
The United States banned asbestos in 1978. The ban was later relaxed, and other measures followed. But the point is that people were aware enough of the dangers by 1978 that most builders and manufacturers stopped using asbestos. Some builders continued using asbestos-laden materials in homes through the 1980s and 1990s, but most newer homes should be free of the material.
Older homes, however, may have asbestos in everything from insulation to flooring, ceiling tiles and paint. The EPA says this is not cause for worry all by itself. So long as these materials remain intact, they shouldn’t release fibers or pose a danger. The problems start as the materials age and start to wear. As they crack and split, they can release asbestos fibers into the air. These fibers can then get into your lungs, or you may absorb them through your skin.
There are no federal laws requiring you to hire workers to remove the asbestos from your home, but it can be risky to tackle an asbestos project on your own.
Even if you don’t work with a professional to test for and remove any asbestos in your home, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) list several steps you might take to reduce your risk of daily exposure:
- Avoid touching or disturbing possible sources
- Close windows if there’s nearby construction
- Vacuum often, using a high-efficiency filter
- Dust with damp rags
- Mop non-carpeted floors
- Use a damp rag to wipe dust off your pet
- Cover dusty or rocky yard surfaces with soil or other materials
The common theme is that asbestos fibers can blow through the air like dust once they break free. If there’s a chance that dusty surfaces might contain asbestos, you want to avoid stirring the dust into the air. Damp materials help prevent the dust from rising.
Understand the environmental risk
Asbestos is a mineral that forms naturally in various locations. This means some communities risk low-grade exposure just due to their locations. Other communities may face greater risk of exposure due to their proximity to asbestos manufacturers or dump sites.
The CDC notes that natural asbestos most often appears near fault lines. If there’s a chance you live on or near asbestos, the CDC recommends you:
- Damp down your yard before digging, raking or doing work that could loose fibers from the ground
- Drive slowly along unpaved roads
- Close your windows on windy days
- Walk, run or bike on paved trails rather than loose gravel or rock
- Support government actions that would limit the amount of dust stirred up by construction
Additionally, you should avoid buildings linked to asbestos manufacturing, and you might research where they dumped their waste. Some manufacturers have actually dumped asbestos into areas later used for children’s playgrounds.
Knowledge is the beginning
At work, at home and in the environment, you cannot actively protect yourself from dangers until you become aware of them. The first step to reducing your risk of asbestos exposure is learning how and why you could be exposed. Only then can you take actions to safeguard your family and yourself.
Finally, it’s worth noting that health experts encourage you to be concerned, but not panicked. You want to treat asbestos exposure as a real health concern, but not necessarily as an immediate emergency. That may change if unlicensed contractors are kicking up clouds of asbestos down the hall, but in most cases, you can help your cause a great deal simply by not kicking asbestos up into the air.