Builders throughout the United States used asbestos extensively for many decades. They thought of asbestos as a miracle fiber. It was tough, they could weave its fibers into cloth, and those fibers resisted both heat and fire. Accordingly, builders used asbestos in everything from floor tiles and vinyl siding to insulation and spray-on fireproofing.
However, the same builders eventually backed away from the material. By the late 1980s, they had almost entirely stopped using asbestos products in new construction. So, why did they stop? And why should today’s construction workers be concerned about asbestos?
Asbestos has a deadly legacy
The problem was that, for all its benefits, asbestos had a fatal flaw. The mineral isn’t just tough and heat resistant. It is also a deadly carcinogen. Asbestos exposure often leads to such diseases as:
- Lung cancer
Sadly, manufacturers knew about the risks far before they changed their behaviors. The first published descriptions of asbestos disease date back to 1918. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, doctors and scientists continued to study and document the mineral’s harmful effects. However, their findings didn’t prompt manufacturers to slow production. Instead, asbestos use exploded in the 1940s when manufacturers used it to insulate the warships and other war machines they were building to fight in World War II.
By the early 1970s, asbestos use in the United States had reached its peak. Companies were using over 800 thousand tons per year. This was despite the decades of science that pointed out the risks. In fact, by 1973, the same year the United States used a record 804 thousand tons of asbestos, the government passed the first limited asbestos ban. The ban outlawed the use of spray-on fireproofing and insulation.
The asbestos industry fought back and overturned a full ban, but the limitations on asbestos use and the increasing number of civil cases started to take their toll. By the mid-1980s most manufacturers moved away from the mineral. As a result, few newer homes and buildings contain asbestos.
Still, the fact that builders used the material so often and for so many years means it may present a hidden danger, lurking within the walls, insulation and tiling of countless older buildings.
Which products still contain asbestos?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that asbestos products do not pose a threat so long as they remain intact. The problems begin when the materials break down and the fibers can get loose into the air. People can then breathe them into their lungs or absorb them through their skin. As a result, construction workers frequently run into asbestos during projects that involve:
- Asbestos removal
These projects that break up old materials risk freeing asbestos into the environment. For this reason, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces strict rules for the testing and handling of any potentially asbestos-laden materials. Unfortunately, manufacturers used asbestos in thousands of different materials, many of which featured in construction. These materials may include:
- Boiler and pipe insulation
- Cement and mortar
- Roofing shingles
- Flooring and ceiling tiles
- Drywall jointing
Without testing, there’s almost no way for workers to know whether their next project might release a harmful carcinogen into the air. The best way to be safe is to follow OSHA’s rules for asbestos testing, containment and disposal.
It is important to understand a history of asbestos exposure
Because they work with so many materials that could contain asbestos, construction workers are among those most at risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. However, the symptoms for diseases such as mesothelioma can often point toward other problems. Because most of those problems are more common, doctors may not look for the correct disease until it’s too late.
Accordingly, it’s important for anyone with a history of asbestos exposure, or potential exposure, to inform their doctors. That extra bit of information may help doctors diagnose their problems earlier. In turn, earlier diagnoses may lead to more aggressive treatment and better outcomes.