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Asbestos Still a Problem after All These Years

For much of the twentieth century, asbestos was the go-to material for fireproofing buildings, dampening sound in schools, strengthening cement pipes, increasing the durability of floor tiles and a number of other jobs. Its use peaked in the U.S. in the early 1970s at around 800,000 tons a year. Thousands of commercial products, from cigarette filters to hair dryers and artificial snow for Christmas trees, contained asbestos, exposing millions to the risk of deadly asbestos-related diseases.

In the 1980s, a combination of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, a tough new OSHA standard and lawsuits from asbestos victims dramatically reduced the use of asbestos in this country. As evidence of this, the U.S. now uses less than 1,000 tons per year, and most of that is used in roofing cements. So while asbestos is not banned in the U.S. like it is in many other countries, it’s rarely used in new construction.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the asbestos problem is behind us. While a lot of asbestos has been removed from buildings over the past 25 years, much of it is still in place. Workers performing maintenance, renovation and demolition work in buildings constructed before 1980 are likely to find that asbestos is present. By law, schools must be surveyed for asbestos and the results passed on to any workers who might be exposed. Some public buildings have similar requirements. Private buildings of that era are governed by OSHA’s asbestos standard, which states that building or facility owners must notify people about the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) or materials that are presumed to contain asbestos (1926.1101(k)(2)(ii)).

But such notifications don’t always happen. Building owners may be unaware of the presence of asbestos behind walls or above drop ceilings. An estimated 10,000 cases of asbestos-related disease (asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and other diseases) occur each year in the U.S. as a result of past exposures. It can take 20-40 years for some of these diseases to manifest, so we are currently seeing the results of exposures from the 1980s and 1990s. The hope is that the regulation in the late 1980s will eventually cause these numbers to decline. But if workers continue to get exposed to asbestos during the renovation and maintenance of old buildings, these diseases may continue well into the future.

It’s critical to check for asbestos in old buildings before renovation or demolition begins. Workers should proceed with caution and keep from disturbing any materials until it’s known for sure whether they contain asbestos. Because you can’t tell just by looking, a small sample of the potential ACM must be sent to a lab for testing.

If asbestos is present, properly trained and certified workers should remove it before demolition or renovation begins. The EPA maintains a list of materials that commonly contained asbestos (e.g., ceiling tiles and drywall joint compound).

If asbestos is disturbed, you should decontaminate yourself before leaving the area by vacuuming your clothing with a HEPA vacuum. The area will also need to be sealed off and cleaned up properly, with all debris placed in sealed, labeled containers. Don’t bring contaminated clothing home to your family. There are numerous cases where family members (and even pets) came down with mesothelioma from asbestos brought home on clothing.

LIUNA Training has a number of classes on asbestos and asbestos abatement that provide more information on how to handle it safely. The LHSFNA offers a Health Alert on asbestos available through our Publications Catalogue. To learn more about the health hazards of asbestos and how to prevent them, check out these resources from the EPA, NIOSH and OSHA.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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