NATIONAL REPORT—Asbestos is a natural mineral, but it is also extremely harmful to human health. Exposure to it can cause tissue damage in the body that over the years ultimately results in serious illness, including the rare but aggressive cancer known as mesothelioma. One of the most common places in which exposure occurs is in older buildings. Remodeling and renovating buildings with asbestos requires careful protection and trained workers. Disposing of asbestos is also problematic, but new research is determining that there may be ways to recycle it.
Asbestos was mined for many years and used in a variety of industries, especially construction. It was highly prized because it can insulate against heat, fire, and electricity, and add durability and strength to materials without adding a lot of extra weight. These properties were useful in building materials including insulation, furnaces, roofing, flooring, drywall, plasters, and many others. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the federal government finally put some restrictions on the use of asbestos because of the harm it can cause.
The small, needle-like fibers of asbestos can break loose and become airborne. From there, anyone in the vicinity can easily inhale or ingest the fibers, which don’t pass readily through the body. They instead get lodged in tissues, especially in and around the lungs. The fibers cause damage to tissue and cells and that can ultimately lead to cancer or a lung scarring disease called asbestosis. Mesothelioma is the cancer most often associated with asbestos exposure. It is rare, aggressive, and deadly. It also has a long latency period, so people exposed to asbestos may not develop symptoms or get a diagnosis for decades.
Asbestos Safety While Working in Older Buildings
Because the restrictions on asbestos were put into place in the 1970s, buildings that are older often contain asbestos. Demolition, renovation, or any kind of remodeling job can damage the existing asbestos, causing fibers to break free and harm workers and others in the area. For instance if an old basement has asbestos insulation around the pipes, a worker not adequately trained may cut right through it, exposing asbestos fibers and inhaling them.
There are federal laws and state level laws that regulate how this work must be done, excepting private residences. For any larger building, such as a hotel, apartment building, or government building, safety procedures and rules must be followed to protect workers and others. For example, the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants requires that demolition or renovation work in a building with asbestos be reported to the appropriate state agency. The law also mandates a threshold amount of asbestos in the air that is allowable.
Even when a building is too small for the rules to apply, it is crucial to proceed carefully and safely when working around asbestos. This means having the work overseen by a certified asbestos professional, monitoring asbestos in the air to make sure it does not exceed threshold levels, and making sure workers have access to and are using safety gear, such as respirators and clothing that can be removed before leaving the premises. Workers who are not provided with adequate training or safety gear may get sick and have legal rights to file a lawsuit against those responsible, such as employers.
In addition to rules that regulate how work is done with and around asbestos, most states also have strict rules about how it can be disposed of in a designated landfill. Even with the greatest care, this asbestos still poses a risk to people. For instance, if the landfill were to be disturbed in some way, like by an earthquake, it could expose the asbestos fibers.
Research has been done to find ways that asbestos from old buildings could be recycled to save money and prevent further harm. One study investigated a procedure that holds great promise. It involves dissolving asbestos from construction materials, like the insulation around a metal pipe, using strong acid or base. The metal or other material can then be reused or recycled.
The dissolved asbestos can be treated by heating and vitrifying it to create a material like glass or ceramics. The high heat damages the asbestos fibers sufficiently that they are no longer risky, and the fibers are trapped in the glass or ceramics. These materials can then be recycled or used in another way.
Asbestos is not used as extensively as it once was, but it is still here, causing harm. This harm too often happens when people are working in or around older buildings, many of which are full of damaged and deteriorating asbestos. With proper training, safety gear, and by following correct procedures, workers can remove or abate asbestos and keep everyone safe. And in the future there may no longer be a need to dispose of asbestos thanks to recycling research.