Danger in the Air: What to Know When Working with Asbestos

by Joel Harper on 2017-02-20 12:50pm

Wisconsin Builders Working with Asbestos

Photo By Michael Pereckas

The word “asbestos” conjures up thoughts of cancer and debility. More frightening is the idea that this threat to health is hidden in buildings, afflicting everyone inside.

The truth about asbestos is more complicated.

"Asbestos" is the commercial name given to a variety of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals. These minerals possess high tensile strength, flexibility, resistance to damage from chemicals and heat, and electrical resistance. Due to these qualities, these minerals have been used for decades in thousands of commercial products, such as insulation and fireproofing materials, automotive brakes and textile products, and cement and wallboard materials.

Unfortunately, when handled, the asbestos in a product can break into microscopic-sized particles that remain in the air and are easily inhaled. People who are continually exposed to asbestos have developed several types of life-threatening diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

Although some people are under the impression that asbestos has been banned in the United States, in fact, it is still available for most uses. Although it is still legal, in practice, the use of asbestos and asbestos products has dramatically decreased in recent years. Strict guidelines have been introduced on the disposal of building products that contain asbestos and many consumers have opted to replace asbestos containing products that are not sealed (i.e., those which are exposed to the air or touch). Nevertheless, asbestos products are still found in many residential and commercial settings and continue to pose a serious health risk to professionals who renovate or repair structures. The potential of encountering asbestos increases if the building was built before the 1980s.

There are a number of ways asbestos can be encountered while performing work on a building.  The insulation placed on pipes, the wrapping around water heaters, or the insulation in the walls and ceilings can all contain asbestos. There are also asbestos gaskets and asbestos roofing and ceiling tiles.

All of this sounds very dire and threatening. In some ways it is. But, the real threat of asbestos comes from continuous and regular contact with it. It isn’t some instant death sentence that will afflict a person on first contact. Occasional contact isn’t normally enough to result in health problems. You don’t need to panic if you happen to accidentally disturb something containing asbestos. The danger is far more insidious. While incidental contact is not terribly dangerous, continuing to work in a location that has asbestos containing materials is very dangerous.

The real problem with asbestos is that people can work for years with asbestos fibers in the air around them and not even know it. The amount of products asbestos has been used in and the fact that it is near impossible to visually identify something laden with asbestos makes this a threat that is often hidden from view.

If you are doing work in a location that could or does contain asbestos, make sure to take precautions. Wear gloves, protective clothing, and breathing protection. Be careful when handling an asbestos containing product. If asbestos is accidentally loosed into the air, avoid touching or breathing any of the fibers that are released.

If you unexpectedly run into something you think may contain asbestos while on the job, it’s best to leave the site and contact the owner of the property. Don’t resume work until the site is safe. In other words, the work can wait until the asbestos products are removed, you have the proper safety gear for working around asbestos, or you have confirmation that the thing you found doesn’t actually contain asbestos.

The reason for caution is not just for yourself but also for any people you work with. Anyone who works in a site with asbestos fibers in the air is in danger.

Caution and preparation are the best defenses. This threat is invisible and airborne. Accidentally releasing fibers may not cause health problems immediately, but those fibers will hang around increasing the likelihood that anyone in the area will suffer consequences to their health. There is no hard number for the number of times you can be exposed before health problems occur, so the best policy is to be cautious every time. Treat each encounter with asbestos as dangerous.

Asbestos is threat to the health of people who work around it. However, it is a slow and subtle threat that can take years to manifest. Be aware and careful and the danger posed by asbestos will be significantly reduced.