In 1988, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that roughly 20% of the nation’s schools and public buildings contained asbestos. This was a startling revelation because asbestos is a carcinogen. It’s known to cause lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma and other diseases. Yet, the report did not lead to the immediate removal of all asbestos.
Instead, the EPA says that asbestos is not dangerous while it remains intact. It is only when it starts to break down and become “friable” that it becomes dangerous. At this point, it can get into the air, and people can breathe it into their bodies.
So, have we gotten rid of all the old asbestos now? No, and it’s not clear how much remains.
How much asbestos? Too much.
In 1988, the Los Angeles Times was among the many news sources that reported the EPA’s findings on asbestos in public buildings. The numbers reported in 1988 were already four years old since they were based on a 1984 survey. Even so, the EPA reported that approximately 733,000 public and commercial buildings contained friable asbestos. That meant that roughly 1 in 5 public and commercial buildings contained asbestos in its most dangerous, carcinogenic form.
Certainly, people have worked since then to remove asbestos from many of these buildings. However, a problem remains: We don’t have a good picture of the amount of work people have actually done. We don’t have a good estimate of the buildings in which asbestos-laden materials have since become friable. In 2021, the Brookings Institute bemoaned this lack of transparency.
Instead of good, clear data, we have anecdotal reports about asbestos hot spots. We hear galling reports about layers of asbestos fibers piled up in schools, such as those mentioned in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Toxic City” articles.
The numbers aren’t any better for private houses
The figures listed above do not yet account for the many private homes built between the 1930s and 1970s. During that time, builders used asbestos in all manner of construction materials:
- Boiler and furnace insulation
- Flooring and siding
- Cement products
- Insulated tapes
- Stove and furnace gaskets and insulation
- Decorative spray on walls and ceilings
- Shingles and roofing
This list is by no means exhaustive, and homeowners during the time were likely to have asbestos-laden products inside their homes, not just built into them.
Homes built since the 1980s are less likely to contain asbestos. However, most people live in older houses. At least they did as recently as 2011 when Old House Web posted housing data from the 2009 American Housing Survey. That data tracked the ages of houses built through 2009:
- 8% of the nation’s houses dated back to the years between 1930 and 1979
- By contrast, only 40.9% were constructed after builders started moving away from asbestos
- The other 9.5% were older, built prior to the 1930s
Notably, the families in these older homes may have “modernized” them during the years asbestos use was rampant. Accordingly, we see a picture of roughly half a nation living in homes built with asbestos.
Manufacturers knew asbestos could kill
While the numbers present a troubling picture, it becomes worse when you realize manufacturers knew asbestos could cause cancer long before they stopped using it. They prioritized profits over people. As a result, we see roughly 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma every year. We also see related cases of lung cancer and asbestosis. All these were preventable.