Asbestos Exposure from Damaged Buildings is a real and present danger.

It is important to be careful and avoid spending time around buildings without asbestos abatement.

If you have been exposed to asbestos, it is vital to get a chest X-ray and understand if you have asbestos scarring.

The Story of Asbestos 

The century between 1880 and 1980 was perhaps the century of asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that is available naturally underneath the surface of the earth. It has phenomenal properties like fire and heat resistance, tensile strength, corrosion, acid and alkali resistance, electrical resistance, insulation and durability. 

Besides these properties, asbestos was easily mined through simple mining techniques. It was also amenable to be mixed with other materials to produce over 3,000 asbestos containing materials (ACM) that found use in a variety of industries across different sectors.Further, ACMs were low-cost high value items and every product manufacturer wanted them.

Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) were used in nearly every building constructed before the mid-1980s.

ACMs were so popular during this period that they were used extensively as building materials. ACMs were found in floor tiles, roof tiles, shingles, sidings, drywall, false ceiling, popcorn ceiling, insulation, plumbing pipes, boilers, cement and attic floors.

While ACMs were making waves in the marketplace, simultaneously they were creating health problems for people handling asbestos in some form or the other. 

It took a number of research studies to determine that asbestos was linked to the health issues suffered by people exposed to asbestos. Subsequently, towards the end of the later part of the 20th century, several health agencies declared asbestos to be a carcinogen.

With the health hazards of asbestos coming to the fore, 69 countries took proactive steps to ban asbestos in their countries. However, other countries, including the United States did not ban asbestos, but resorted to regulating the use of asbestos in their countries. In fact, the U.S. created the United States Environmental Protection Agency under which asbestos was included to be regulated. 

How and Why Asbestos is Dangerous to Human Health 

The very same properties that made asbestos popular are responsible for the downfall of asbestos as a useful substance. The two main properties relate to asbestos’ durability and its near indestructibility and its basic structure. 

Asbestos is made up of thousands of microscopic asbestos fibers in a layered structure held together loosely or tightly. 

When it is held together loosely, it is known as friable asbestos, which means that friable asbestos can be crushed by ordinary hand pressure.

When asbestos is held together tightly, it is known as non-friable asbestos, which means that it cannot be crushed by ordinary hand pressure, but requires pressure much higher than ordinary hand pressure. For instance, hammering asbestos material could crush it.

An example of friable ACMs in buildings could include filling materials in wall panels and ceilings and exhaust pipe insulations.  

An example of non-friable ACMs in buildings could include floor tiles, paints, packing in pipes and cables and manhole covers.

Another facet of asbestos is that non-friable asbestos can become friable with efflux of time and wear and tear and also when subjected to high external pressure. 

This means that ACMs in old buildings can easily break down into friable asbestos in the air, which is easier to inhale or swallow.

When friable asbestos is subjected to external pressure by workers while undertaking repairs, it breaks into thousands of microscopic fibers that are invisible to the naked eye. These fibers can float in the air and workers can inhale or swallow these fibers. 

These fibers enter the respiratory system or the digestive system of the workers and being almost indestructible, they reside in the body lifelong because there is no way to take these fibers out. 

This then is the beginning of the health problems faced by the workers who have inhaled or swallowed the fibers. 

Over a period of time these fibers begin to irritate the tissues that can lead to scarring. This scarring can lead to an asbestos-related disease (ARD). These ARDs could be either non-cancerous like asbestosis or cancerous like mesothelioma

Thus, asbestos exposure is the root cause of ARDs and anyone working with ACMs in any capacity can be subjected to asbestos exposure and suffer the consequences thereof.

Unfortunately, asbestos exposure can also behave like secondhand smoking, which means that families of workers can suffer secondary asbestos exposure brought on by the workers. This happens because these workers can carry asbestos fibers on their person, tools, equipment, documents, clothing and footwear. They can also leave fibers in their vehicles. This is how family members, including children can now be exposed to asbestos. 

Asbestos fibers are characterized by dose response and latency. 

Dose response refers to the number of times a person is exposed to asbestos or the length of time exposure happens. Therefore, workers handling asbestos or ACMs throughout their life are more prone to asbestos exposure than those who don’t work with asbestos. 

Latency refers to the time between the first asbestos exposure and the diagnosis of an ARD. This can be between 20 and 50 years in the case of the cancerous mesothelioma or 15 to 20 years in the case of asbestosis.

Asbestos Exposure from Damaged Buildings 

From the foregoing it is apparent that old and damaged buildings do pose a problem to people in and around these buildings. This is because most old buildings and damaged buildings would have friable ACMs in them. 

Friable ACMs (airborne asbestos fibers) can be disturbed by a strong wind blowing across the building or caught up in a storm and begin floating in the air and affect those in their path. 

Such people are then subject to asbestos exposure, running the risk of acquiring an ARD, which may end up as asbestosis or even mesothelioma.   

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, there are 47.2 million housing units out of 118 million housing units in the country that have been built prior to 1970. The probability of these buildings having ACMs is very high and all these buildings pose a risk of asbestos exposure to the inmates and anyone visiting these buildings. The same is true of office buildings built prior to 1970. 

Another source of asbestos exposure is from buildings damaged in hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, earthquakes and man-made disasters like the 9/11 destruction of the WTC towers. 

The danger from damaged buildings can be gauged from the data emanating from the WTC disaster post the 9/11 attack. 

The destruction of the WTC towers dispersed a huge amount of dust that contained a variety of substances. It was estimated that of the dust dispersed, 0.8% of the dust was asbestos. 

The authorities concerned with the aftermath of the disaster estimated that to an extent of 1.5-mile radius of the WTC site, the dust had spread and people living within that area would be exposed to asbestos.  

The World Trade Center Health Registry tracked the effects from asbestos exposure to find that a minimum of 352 people were diagnosed with asbestosis, at least 444 people were diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, 8% were diagnosed with cancer in 2007, rising to nearly 16% in 2016. 

Therefore, it is clear from the foregoing that the risk from damaged buildings is real and poses a danger to people residing within the vicinity of such buildings. 

People would be well advised to take precautions whenever such one-off events happen.