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Asbestos Safety

Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur naturally in the atmosphere as a collection of fibers that can be separated into thin, resilient threads.  These fibers do not conduct electricity and are resistant to heat and fire.  For these reasons, asbestos has been used far and wide in many industries.

Most products generated today do not contain asbestos.  If a product has been recently made with the fiber, it is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the product is labeled.  However, any products made prior to the late 1980’s, did not require a label.  Asbestos was used in many common household building products.  The building and construction industries used it for strengthening cement and plastics as well as for insulation, roofing, fireproofing and sound absorption.  The shipbuilding industry used asbestos to insulate boilers, steam pipes, and hot water pipes.  The automotive industry uses asbestos in vehicle brake shoes and clutch pads.  Asbestos has also been used in ceiling and floor tiles, paints, coatings and adhesives, and plastics.  In addition, asbestos has been found in vermiculite containing garden products and some talc contained in crayons. 

Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some point in their life.  Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil.  People may also be exposed to asbestos in their workplace, their communities, or their homes.  If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air.  When asbestos fibers are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain in there for a long time.  Over time, these fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health conditions.  However, most people do not become ill from their exposure.  Individuals who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through ample environmental contact. 

Asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen.  A carcinogen is a substance that causes cancer.  Studies have shown that exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.  Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen; it is also the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure.  Some studies have also suggested that asbestos exposure is linked to gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers as well as elevated levels of cancer of the throat, kidneys, esophagus, and gallbladder.  Asbestos exposure may also cause asbestosis, which is an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage.   
If you suspect that you have asbestos in your home, do not panic.  If asbestos fibers are in good condition they will not release asbestos fibers, and usually the best thing to do is to leave it alone.  The asbestos is not dangerous unless it is disturbed and the fibers are released.  If you suspect asbestos, check it regularly to ensure it has not been disturbed.  You will just want to visually check the area, and try not to touch it.  Some common disturbances to check for would be:  abrasions, wears and tears, and water damage.  Asbestos materials may become a hazard when damaged by hitting, rubbing, or handling it, or is it is exposed to extreme vibration or air flow.  Most often, the best way to deal with slightly damaged material is to limit access to the area and to not touch or agitate it.  If asbestos material is more than slightly damaged, or if you are going to be making changes to your home that may disturb it, repair or removal by a professional is desired.  Before you remodel your home, it is best to find out for sure whether asbestos materials are present through a home inspection.  You can not tell whether or not a material in your home contains asbestos, unless it is labeled.  If in doubt, treat the material as though it does contain asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional.  A professional will take samples for analysis.  Taking samples yourself is not recommended as this could be more hazardous than leaving the material alone.   If asbestos material is damaged and is causing a problem in your home, there are two types of correction management:  repair and removal.  Repair usually involves either sealing or covering asbestos material.  Sealing involves treating the material with a sealant that either binds the asbestos fibers together or coats the material so fibers are not released.  Pipe, furnace, and boiler insulation can sometimes be repaired this way.   This should only be done by a professional trained to handle asbestos safely.  Another form of asbestos repair is to cover it.  This involves placing something over or around the material that contains asbestos to prevent release of fibers.  Exposed insulated piping may be covered with a protective wrap or jacket.  Removal of asbestos would involve removing and replacing all materials in the home that contains the potentially dangerous fibers.  Removal is considered the last option because removal poses the greatest risk of fiber release.  However, removal may be required when remodeling or making major changes to your home that could disturb the asbestos material. 

If you feel the need to contact an asbestos professional check with your state to see if they have a list of certified professionals.  Asbestos professionals can conduct home inspections, take samples of suspected material, assess its condition, and advise about what corrections are needed and refer you to qualified professionals to make these corrections.  The federal government has training courses for asbestos, and some state and local governments also have or require training or certification courses.  Be sure to ask your asbestos professional to document their completion of federal or state approved asbestos training. 

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