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April 3, 2012

5 things you should know about asbestos

by: John E. Herrick

What do you think about when you hear the word “asbestos”? You may be familiar with litigation surrounding those who have been exposed to asbestos and who have suffered or died from an asbestos-related disease. Beyond a basic familiarity with asbestos litigation, however, some are unaware of what asbestos is or who is at risk for exposure. Below are five common questions and answers regarding asbestos that may help you assess past asbestos exposure and also prevent future exposure.

1. What exactly is asbestos?

Asbestos has been used for thousands of years and was named asbestos by the ancient Greeks. The name meant “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable.” Today, the term “asbestos” is used as a generic name to describe naturally occurring minerals mined from the earth that possess high strength, flexibility, and resistance to heat, chemical, electrical and thermal properties. When crushed, asbestos minerals give off fibers that are collected and used as raw asbestos fibers or woven into textiles and mixed with other substances to create products such as thermal insulation, automotive brakes, textile products, cement, fireproofing and wallboard materials, to name a few.

Asbestos became popular in the United States during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, when it was used as insulation on turbines, pipes, boilers and other high-temperature products.

2. Is asbestos still being manufactured and used today?

Yes. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that the United States has not called for the wholesale prohibition of asbestos. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a federal regulation banning most asbestos-containing products in 1989, this regulation was overturned by judicial order in 1991. This means that many U.S. consumer products today can still legally contain certain amounts of asbestos, including brake pads and clutches, roofing materials, vinyl tile, cement pipe and sheeting material.

In addition, asbestos is stilled mined in Russia and China for local use, as well as Canada, where most of it is exported to Asia and Africa.

3. What makes asbestos dangerous?

When asbestos material breaks into small pieces, tiny asbestos fibers can travel into the lungs and become lodged in the lung tissue. Because of the nearly indestructible properties of asbestos, these carcinogenic asbestos fibers can cause a buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs. Common asbestos-related diseases caused asbestos exposure include, but are not limited to, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

4. Who is at risk for asbestos exposure and disease?

While federal and state regulations have implemented safety criteria in conjunction with the use and abatement of asbestos products, people are still being exposed to asbestos and are at risk for contracting asbestos-related diseases. Building and facility maintenance workers, workers involved in removing insulation and other asbestos-containing products and workers involved in the renovation and demolition of structures containing asbestos are among those with high risk of exposure. The loved ones of these workers can also be at risk. “Take-home exposure,” or “household exposure/secondhand exposure,” is caused by workers transporting asbestos on their clothing from work to their home environment, where children, grandchildren and spouses can be exposed to residual fibers left on the clothing.

5. What can I do if I think I have been exposed to asbestos?

It is important to contact your doctor if you believe you have been exposed to asbestos for any period of time or are currently suffering from asbestos-related symptoms.

For more information regarding asbestos, please visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asbestos. Learn more about asbestos exposure including products and occupations that may pose health risks.