Asbestos Health Risks
There are no health threats when asbestos containing building materials remain undisturbed and do not become airborne. Asbestos containing floor tile is a good example of a building material that is not a health hazard when in good condition. Normal wear will not release fibers, in fact you would have to burn, grind, or use extreme mechanical methods to release enough fibers to be a health concern. On the other hand, popcorn ceiling texture can easily become airborne. If you simply rub your hand over the surface you will cause a release of fibers.
All asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period, that is, it takes 20 to 40 years for the first symptoms to appear. Given the poor work conditions of the past, the widespread use of amphiboles up until the 70’s, and this long latency period, it is not surprising that new cases of asbestos-related disease continue to be observed. But this has nothing to do with today’s products containing only chrysotile and work conditions.
Uncontrolled work conditions, work with friable insulation materials and the extensive use of amphibole asbestos fibers in the past have resulted in asbestos-related disease. But times have changed: the types of fibers and products used are different, and dust control technology has evolved. Today, amphiboles are no longer used, the use of low-density friable insulation materials has been banned, and exposure limits for chrysotile are hundreds of times lower than past worker exposures.
Even if these friable products containing chrysotile are present in many commercial buildings, mostly in Europe and North America, removal of asbestos insulation should be considered a measure of last resort and undertaken only when the material is beyond repair or at the time of major renovation work or building demolition. Hasty elimination of asbestos insulation considerably increases the probability that controls will not be adequately enforced, thus presenting a source of risk not only for the workers, but for building occupants as well.
An estimated 1.3 million employees in construction and general industry face significant asbestos exposure on the job. Heaviest exposures occur in the construction industry, particularly during the removal of asbestos during renovation or demolition. Employees are also likely to be exposed during the manufacture of asbestos products (such as textiles, friction products, insulation, and other building materials) and during automotive brake and clutch repair work.
Asbestos is well recognized as a health hazard and is highly regulated. OSHA and EPA asbestos rules are intertwined.
Asbestos workers have increased chances of getting two principal types of cancer: cancer of the lung tissue itself and mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membrane that surrounds the lung and other internal organs. These diseases do not develop immediately following exposure to asbestos, but appear only after a number of years. The following documents describe the health hazards of asbestos and how to recognize it.
From studies of people who were exposed to asbestos in factories and shipyards, we know that breathing high levels of asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of:
• Lung cancer, Many forms of lung cancer.
• Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity.
• Asbestoses, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue.
The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the number of fibers inhaled. The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers is also greater if you smoke. People who get asbestoses have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.
Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos, as we all are in our daily lives, do not develop these health problems. However, if disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos fibers, which can be inhaled into the lungs. The fibers can remain there for a long time, increasing the risk of disease. Asbestos material that would crumble easily if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or sanded into a powder, is more likely to create a health hazard.
Most health information on asbestos exposure has been derived from studies of workers who have been exposed to asbestos in the course of their occupation. Asbestos fiber concentrations for these workers were many times higher than those encountered by the general public.
Because asbestos fibers are naturally occurring and extremely aerodynamic, virtually everyone is exposed to asbestos. To be a significant health concern, asbestos fibers must be inhaled at high concentrations over an extended period of time. Asbestos fibers then accumulate in the lungs. As exposure increases, the risk of disease also increases. Therefore, measures to minimize exposure and consequently minimize accumulation of fibers will reduce the risk of adverse health effects.
Asbestos is only dangerous if it becomes airborne. As long as asbestos containing materials are not damaged, the asbestos fibers do not become airborne and do not pose a health threat to the building occupants. During an asbestos building survey, inspectors assess the condition of asbestos containing materials. These conditions do deteriorate over time. If you find that an asbestos containing item has been damaged, please contact our office for a hazard assessment.
As asbestos fibers accumulate in the lungs, several types of diseases may occur. Asbestosis is a scarring of the lung tissue. This scarring impairs the elasticity of the lung and hampers its ability to exchange gases. This leads to inadequate oxygen intake to the blood. Asbestosis restricts breathing leading to decreased lung volume and increased resistance in the airways. It is a slowly progressive disease with a latency period of 15 to 30 years.
The next type of disease attributed to asbestos exposure is Mesothelioma. It is a cancer of the pleural lining. It is considered to be exclusively related to asbestos exposure. By the time it is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal. Similar to other asbestos related diseases, mesothelioma has a longer latency period of 30 to 40 years.
Lung Cancer is a malignant tumor of the bronchi covering. The tumor grows through surrounding tissue, invading and often obstructing air passages. The time between exposure to asbestos and the occurrence of lung cancer is 20 to 30 years. It should be noted that there is a synergistic effect between smoking and asbestos exposure, which creates an extreme susceptibility to lung cancer.
Airborne Fiber Concentrations
Asbestos is known to be hazardous based on studies of high levels of exposure to asbestos workers and laboratory animals. However, the risks associated with low level, non-occupational exposure are not well established. Therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concludes that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibers. On the other hand, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) at 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc) for an 8 hour time weighted average. Similarly, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has set the Clean Indoor Air Standard at 0.01 f/cc.
Controlling the exposure to asbestos can be done through engineering controls, administrative actions, and personal protective equipment. Engineering controls include such things as isolating the source and using ventilation systems. Administrative actions include limiting the workers exposure time and providing showers. Personal protective equipment include wearing the proper respiratory protection and clothing. The following resources contain information to help control asbestos exposures.
Black Mold Health Risks
Exposure to black mold can occur when airborne mold cells, mostly spores, are inhaled. We breathe in these cells every day, indoors and out. Usually these exposures do not present a health risk. But when exposure is great, some individuals, particularly those with allergies and asthma, can experience illness that could be mild to serious or anywhere in between. The following is a description of the health problems that can be caused by exposure to mold.
Allergic Illness When mold cells are inhaled and land in the respiratory tract, the body’s immune system’s response to those invading cells can cause allergic illness. The immune system tries to destroy the mold as it would an agent, like a flu virus, that might cause infection. In a relatively small portion of the population (about 10 percent of people in the U.S.), the immune system overreacts and causes the allergic response that results in symptoms such as runny nose, scratchy throat and sneezing. Most of us know this allergic illness as “hay fever” or “allergic rhinitis.”
Asthma is a lung disease in which the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs can partially close, causing breathing difficulties ranging from mild (such as a dry cough) to life-threatening (inability to breathe). North Carolina is in the midst of what is being called a world-wide asthma epidemic. A recent survey of North Carolina middle school children revealed that 10 percent had been diagnosed with asthma and another 17 percent had asthma symptoms that had never been diagnosed. More than half of asthmatics have respiratory allergies, often to mold. Molds can trigger asthma episodes in sensitive asthmatic mold species can cause respiratory infection when the live mold invades the tissues of the lungs or respiratory tract. This is not a significant risk for healthy people, but can be dangerous for individuals with severely weakened immune systems.
Toxic Effects Very large doses of certain molds, whether inhaled or ingested, can result in poisoning caused by toxins, called mycotoxins, in the mold cells. It is not clear whether an individual can receive a high enough exposure to mold growing indoors to experience these toxic effects.
One particular type of mold that has been recently highlighted in the media is Stachybotrys chartarum (also known as Stachybotrys atra).Stachybotrys is a greenish-black mold that grows on materials with high cellulose content (drywall, wood, paper, ceiling tiles) that are chronically wet or moist. It is one of several molds that can produce mycotoxins under certain environmental conditions. The health effects of breathing mycotoxins are not well understood, but we do know that most molds can present some health risks, such as allergic reactions. Therefore, any mold growth in a building should be cleaned up, regardless of the type of mold. For additional information on this issue see Questions and Answers on Stachybotrys chartarum and other molds on the National Center for Environmental Health website.
Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths. Children may also be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead, inhaling lead dust from lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil or from playing with toys with lead paint.
Adults, Including Pregnant Women
Adults may be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead. They may also breath lead dust by spending time in areas where lead-based paint is deteriorating, and during renovation or repair work that disturbs painted surfaces in older homes and buildings. Working in a job or engaging in hobbies where lead is used, such as making stained glass, can increase exposure as can certain folk remedies containing lead. A pregnant woman’s exposure to lead from these sources is of particular concern because it can result in exposure to her developing baby.
Lower Your Chances of Exposure to Lead
Simple steps like keeping your home clean and well-maintained will go a long way in preventing lead exposure. You can lower the chances of exposure to lead in your home, both now and in the future, by taking these steps:
- Inspect and maintain all painted surfaces to prevent paint deterioration
- Address water damage quickly and completely
- Keep your home clean and dust-free
- Clean around painted areas where friction can generate dust, such as doors, windows, and drawers. Wipe these areas with a wet sponge or rag to remove paint chips or dust
- Use only cold water to prepare food and drinks
- Flush water outlets used for drinking or food preparation
- Clean debris out of outlet screens or faucet aerators on a regular basis
- Wash children’s hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys often
- Teach children to wipe and remove their shoes and wash hands after playing outdoors
- Ensure that your family members eat well-balanced meals. Children with healthy diets absorb less lead. Lead and a Healthy Diet,
What You Can Do to Protect Your Child (PDF)
Always use licensed contractors with a history of proven results and make sure they follow lead safe work practices.