Why Is It Important to Handle Asbestos Safely?
Asbestos exposure has been linked to several diseases, including malignant mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer and asbestosis. When asbestos becomes airborne, the toxic fibers cannot be seen with the naked eye, meaning someone can be exposed to asbestos fibers without knowing it. Fibers that have been inhaled or ingested may become lodged in the linings of the organs, including the heart, lungs or abdomen, causing health issues years later.
While asbestos use has declined due to extensive regulations, product bans and a shift toward safer alternatives, people still may be exposed to the toxic mineral through third-wave exposure caused by mishandling asbestos-containing materials. Third-wave asbestos exposure happens when someone is exposed to asbestos dust found in finished products, including construction materials, consumer goods and other items.
Products that are in good condition and completely intact are largely considered safe, but should be monitored for possible wearing or other damage. If damaged, those items are at risk of releasing asbestos dust into the air. In those situations, it is important to have an asbestos abatement company assess the situation and, if needed, perform an encapsulation or a complete removal of those materials.
Where Can Asbestos Be Found?
Asbestos has been used in thousands of products, ranging from building supplies and automotive parts to consumer items like ironing board covers and protective clothing. According to the EPA, in 1985 about 20% of public and private buildings and residential apartment buildings contained friable asbestos. This estimate was made following a national survey to help the EPA create a comprehensive asbestos program to address the issue. The agency also noted that buildings constructed during the 1960s, when asbestos use was nearing its peak, are more likely to contain asbestos than homes and buildings constructed at other time periods.
Home construction projects from the 1930s through the mid-1970s often included asbestos-containing materials because they were durable and provided thermal insulation in areas that could face prolonged exposure to heat. In recent years, construction workers and homeowners alike have been exposed to asbestos fibers while performing renovations and remodels in older houses. Asbestos materials were used throughout older homes and can still be found today especially in basements, attics and bathrooms.
Home Materials Containing Asbestos
- Cement sheeting
- Electrical breakers
- Roof shingles/felt
- Textured popcorn ceilings/ceiling tiles
- Vinyl floor tiles
Like many homes in the U.S., asbestos was also typically used in public buildings, private companies and schools as a thermal insulator in areas where heat was a concern. Asbestos coatings were applied to metal beams as a fireproofing material and mixed into compounds and plasters used on walls and ceilings. In 1985, the EPA estimated that in 190,000 buildings, there were about 1.2 billion square feet of asbestos materials that had been sprayed or troweled on. The agency also noted that those materials contained an average of about 14% asbestos.
Asbestos can also enter the home in a secondary nature, as the mineral was used in numerous industries and is often accidentally brought home on a workers’ clothing, equipment or in their hair. Additionally, the toxin has been used in various old consumer goods, including hair dryers, crock pots, irons, popcorn poppers, ironing board covers, pot holders and oven mitts. Though use of asbestos in these products ceased around the mid-1970s, some of these old products may still linger in the home.
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The Asbestos Removal Process
Handling any asbestos products and materials can be dangerous, especially if the material is worn or damaged. A person without the right training and certificates should never attempt to remove asbestos-containing materials on their own. According to several governmental organizations, including the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there is no safe level of exposure.
Before performing any type of renovation or demolition work, it’s important to hire a professional to take samples of materials that may be damaged or broken while the work is being done. It’s important to keep in mind that all products where asbestos may have been used could potentially contain the mineral and should be treated as dangerous. A licensed professional will be able to do a visual inspection of the area first for any potential hazards and take samples for analysis. When taking samples, an inspector will remove small pieces of the questionable material and have them analyzed by a lab to determine their asbestos content.
If asbestos is found, a specialist may recommend complete removal, also known as abatement, or encapsulation. Asbestos-containing materials are generally considered safe if they’re in good condition, but they should still be periodically checked for damage or other signs of wear. Asbestos abatement specialists can determine what actions need to be taken and are trained to remove the materials safely.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), abatement specialists should be accredited and vetted before any work is performed. The agency also suggests that the asbestos inspector employed to do the initial inspection is different than the removal contractors to avoid a conflict of interest.
Depending on the extent of the damage and the risk of asbestos exposure, an asbestos contractor will suggest the materials be either encapsulated or completely removed from the work area. During encapsulation, the materials in question will be coated with a sealant that prevents fibers from escaping and becoming airborne. If the damage is too severe and there is a clear risk of exposure, the materials may need to be completely removed. Removal is more expensive than encapsulation, but removes the mineral completely from the area.
Asbestos Removal Process
- Turn off HVAC units and seal vents to prevent asbestos fibers from circulating.
- Seal off the work area.
- Wet cleanup methods and HEPA filter vacuums should be used to clean the workspace.
- All materials removed from the site must be placed inside clearly marked, leak-tight containers.
- Technicians should wear a full-face mask respirator and coveralls when removing asbestos-containing materials.
- At the end of the shift, any soiled clothes should be bagged or contained. Workers should change and shower in a clean room away from the work area before changing into street clothes.
Homeowners who need to have asbestos removed from their residence should try to receive multiple bids for the abatement project, and ensure that the contractor provides a written work plan detailing what methods will be used to remove and clean up the area. These plans should meet all state and federal regulations to ensure the job is being done correctly. Contractors should also be able to provide references to see how satisfied other customers were with the work done.
Once the asbestos has been removed, it is taken to a landfill that is qualified to receive the waste. In some cases, the toxic mineral can actually be recycled through the use of incredibly high heat which eventually converts the fibers into an inert silicate glass. In one study, metals that had asbestos coverings were submerged into a sodium hydroxide (NaOH) bath, resulting in a silica gel that could be easily turned into glass. The metals were also able to be recycled.
Asbestos Handling Rules and Regulations
There are federal rules and regulations in place dictating how asbestos waste should be handled, whether it’s in schools, the workplace or at home. While some rules are specific to certain locations and building types, others serve a more universal purpose and overlap with additional rules to fully protect people from unnecessary exposure.
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) is an EPA rule put into place to address asbestos found in schools and other learning facilities across the country. As part of the regulations, all institutions must periodically inspect their facilities for the presence of asbestos-containing materials and must have a plan in place to reduce future hazards associated with exposure to the mineral.
The National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) are meant to reduce the amount of asbestos that becomes airborne while performing work. These rules relate to demolition and renovation projects in buildings and ensure that there is as little contamination as possible around the worksite.
OSHA has regulations that are specific to several types of industry, ranging from general industries to shipyards and construction. Included in these rules are Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL) for employees who may come into contact with the mineral, rules for marking asbestos materials and medical monitoring, surveillance and recordkeeping related to exposure.
Additional EPA Regulations
The EPA has a variety of rules in place related to asbestos. Besides AHERA and NESHAP, the EPA controls asbestos exposure and reporting through the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Asbestos Worker Protection Rule and through bans of certain asbestos applications. These regulations are meant to dictate how asbestos is disposed of and where, preventing cases of exposure from occurring.