Despite many bans and ongoing regulation, asbestos continues to present a health danger.

Asbestos, once hailed as a miracle material for construction, is now an ominous word, one that evokes fear, and rightly so. With its fibrous structure and impressive resistance to heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion,  asbestos went from zero to hero in a flash during the early 20th Century, with widespread use in building materials, household products – even fake movie snow! 

Global Asbestos Regulation and Danger

For all its supposed charm, by the late 20th century, the severe health risks associated with asbestos exposure – including lung disease and cancers – prompted many countries to implement bans or, at the least, strict regulations on its use. Nevertheless, despite these measures, asbestos remains a pervasive problem: its legacy lingers in countless buildings and structures in which it was once used so extensively that its pernicious presence persists.

There are three critical reasons as to why asbestos continues to be a global issue: firstly, its prevalence in existing buildings and related materials poses ongoing risks, particularly in structures built before asbestos awareness led to regulations coming into effect. Secondly, the latency of health issues related to asbestos exposure complicates detection and treatment, as symptoms can emerge decades after the initial contact. Lastly, the risk of second-hand exposure is often underestimated, affecting individuals who have never directly worked with asbestos materials, but have come into contact with them indirectly.

Asbestos in Buildings and Cement

Asbestos was once widely acclaimed for its versatility, and was heavily utilized in construction and building materials for much of the 20th century; with its fire-resistant properties, durability, and affordability, this naturally occurring mineral was an attractive option for builders and architects. Asbestos found its way into numerous construction products, including cement, roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, and insulation materials; this extensive use has left a lasting impact, as many existing buildings – especially those constructed before the 1980s – still contain asbestos-laden materials.

The gravity of the situation was highlighted in a pivotal 1994 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), revealing the widespread presence of asbestos in both commercial and residential buildings, with a particular emphasis on public buildings, such as schools and hospitals. The study underscored the potential risks posed to occupants from airborne asbestos fibers – especially during renovation or demolition activities, when these deadly fibers can be inadvertently released into the environment.

Unfortunately, removing asbestos from existing structures presents monumental challenges. As detailed in an article published in ScienceDirect, the process of asbestos abatement is complex, costly, and fraught with health risks; abatement procedures require specialized equipment and highly trained professionals to ensure that asbestos fibers are not released into the air. Moreover, there’s the challenge of safely disposing of these asbestos materials, as they must strictly be handled as hazardous waste; these factors inevitably contribute to the reluctance and/or delay in addressing asbestos in many aging buildings.

Triple Asbestos House 2 1936 February AsbestosMagazine
Nearly every building constructed in the twentieth century contained some kind asbestos product. In the above image, the world’s largest asbestos producer Johns-Manville bragged about construction a “Triple Insulated House”, with “the idea of incorporating asbestos materials in its construction wherever possible…” including “asbestos shingles, walls and roof” for the “average citizen”.

Case studies abound, illustrating the prevalence and challenges of asbestos in buildings. A notable example is the discovery of asbestos in the United States Capitol building during renovations in the early 2000s; despite being a beloved symbol of national heritage, even the Capitol was not immune to the widespread use of asbestos, necessitating extensive abatement efforts in an attempt to ensure the safety of lawmakers, staff, and visitors. Similarly, over in the UK, the Houses of Parliament have also been the subject of ongoing asbestos removal projects, reflecting the pervasive nature of the problem that remains woven into the very core of many historic structures.

Another poignant example can be found in schools across the United States, with reports surfacing over the years of asbestos in school buildings, naturally raising alarming concerns regarding children’s exposure to this hazardous material; in many cases, schools have had to be temporarily closed for asbestos removal to be carried out, disrupting education and causing considerable community concern.

Latency of Health Problems

One of the most insidious aspects of asbestos exposure is the latency of the resulting health problems. Latency, in the context of enfermedades relacionadas con el asbesto, refers to the prolonged period between initial exposure to asbestos fibers and the manifestation of associated diseases. The latency period for asbestos-related health complications can span decades, making it extremely challenging to establish a direct link between exposure and illness, thus, complicating efforts to diagnose and treat these atrocious conditions in a timely manner.

The concept of latency is critical in understanding the full impact of asbestos on public health. For many individuals exposed to asbestos, particularly those in construction, manufacturing, and shipbuilding industries, the health consequences may not become apparent until many years, often several decades, later; the often extreme nature of these delayed onsets is a defining characteristic of asbestos-related diseases, and poses a significant challenge for both individuals and healthcare systems.

Un detailed study published in 1994 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) delved into this issue of latency. The findings highlight the fact that diseases like mesothelioma (a rare and aggressive cancer primarily affecting the lining of the lungs), and asbestosis (a chronic lung disease), can have latency periods ranging from 10 to 30 years; this extensive time gap between exposure and disease onset means that individuals who were exposed in the mid-20th century – when asbestos use was at its peak – are only just now presenting with symptoms.

Furthermore, the diseases caused by asbestos exposure are not limited to mesothelioma and asbestosis; lung cancer is another significant concern, with studies indicating a substantially increased risk among those exposed to asbestos who also smoke tobacco. Additionally, asbestos exposure has been linked to cancers of the larynx and ovary, as well as other pleural abnormalities, conditions that are often severe, if not life-threatening, and with limited treatment options, particularly in advanced stages.

The delayed onset of these diseases complicates diagnosis and treatment, often to a critical extent; early symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or a persistent cough may even be mistakenly attributed to more common respiratory conditions or aging. By the time an accurate diagnosis is made, the disease may well have progressed to an advanced stage, limiting treatment efficacy and reducing survival rates.

Second-hand Exposure and Lack of Awareness

As if direct exposure didn’t wreak enough havoc, the risks associated with asbestos exposure are not confined to those who have directly worked with the material. Second-hand exposure, a less obvious but equally dangerous form of contact, significantly contributes to the ongoing asbestos-related health crisis. This type of exposure occurs when individuals inhale or ingest asbestos fibers brought into the home on the clothing, hair, skin, or personal items of someone who has worked directly with asbestos. Family members of workers in asbestos-heavy industries are particularly at risk, often without any knowledge or awareness as to the danger they are potentially in.

One striking illustration of the insidious nature of second-hand asbestos exposure is found in a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study focuses on women and malignant peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the abdomen, with findings revealing a deeply concerning trend; many women diagnosed with this disease had no direct occupational exposure to asbestos – instead, their exposure was often solely linked to living with someone who worked in asbestos-rich environments and likely brought it home on their person, clothes, and work accessories.

The lack of awareness surrounding second-hand asbestos exposure brings about a significant public health concern; many individuals simply do not realize that asbestos carried home on work clothes or equipment can contaminate their living spaces, putting family members at risk. This type of exposure is particularly insidious because it’s so indirect, typically going unrecognized until a serious health issue, such as mesotelioma or lung cancer, emerges; by then, tracing the source of exposure can be extremely challenging, complicating both medical diagnoses and legal recourse for victims and their families.

The latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases further compounds the issue; the time gap between exposure and the onset of symptoms can span decades, making it difficult for affected individuals to connect the dots between their illness and any past second-hand exposure. Delayed symptom onset can lead to misdiagnosis or late diagnosis, both with the potential to severely impact treatment outcomes and survival rates.

Professions at Risk

Asbestos exposure is not limited to industries traditionally associated with heavy asbestos use, such as construction or shipbuilding. Professions with high risk of asbestos exposure also extend to roles where the work environment is in close proximity to asbestos-containing materials or activities; a pertinent example is the automotive industry, particularly in automotive repair shops, where asbestos is often present in older vehicle parts, such as brake pads and clutches.

A study focused on occupational exposure in automotive shops sheds light on the risks faced by mechanics and other workers in these settings. The research highlights how even routine activities, such as repairing or replacing old vehicle parts, can release asbestos fibers into the air; these fibers, once airborne, pose a significant inhalation risk to anyone within the vicinity, not just those directly handling the materials.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recognized these risks and implemented increasingly stringent regulations to protect workers. These regulations mandate safety practices in workplaces, including automotive shops, to minimize asbestos exposure; they require employers to provide appropriate protective equipment, ensure proper ventilation, and enforce decontamination procedures to protect workers from the invisible threat of asbestos.

The presence of asbestos in workplaces has led to the development of stringent laws and regulations to protect workers from its harmful effects. A key aspect of this regulatory framework is the requirement for employers to notify workers if they are working in buildings that contain asbestos; this mandate is crucial in ensuring that workers are made aware of potential risks and can take the appropriate precautions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also set guidelines for occupant notifications in buildings containing asbestos, emphasizing the dire need for transparency and safety in the workplace.

Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) plays a pivotal role in setting and enforcing standards for asbestos exposure in the workplace. OSHA’s regulations cover various aspects of asbestos handling, including exposure limits, respiratory protection, and training requirements; these regulations are designed to minimize occupational exposure and protect worker health.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) contributes to these efforts through the Occupational Requirements Survey Collection Manual. This manual provides a comprehensive framework for collecting and analyzing data on occupational requirements, including exposure to hazardous materials like asbestos. The information gathered through this survey is critical in understanding the nature and extent of occupational exposure to asbestos across different industries and job roles, and aids in shaping policies and regulations to enhance worker safety and health in the face of asbestos exposure risks.

Protecting Our Future Generations

Asbestos remains a global problem, not solely because of its historical use, but due to the ongoing repercussions in public health, building management, and legal frameworks, and its persistent presence in our work and living environments; tackling this issue demands a multi-faceted approach involving continued research, education, (adherence to) strict regulations, and a commitment to public health and safety. As we move forward, acknowledging the long-term impacts of asbestos is essential in effectively addressing and mitigating its risks, ensuring a safer environment for current and future generations.