Did you know that some brake pads, insulation materials, valves, boilers, hair dryers, and even potting soil contain asbestos? While most people know that homes with popcorn ceilings may have asbestos, few realize that asbestos is still used in products, and present in many industrial and building environments, today.
We wanted to show our support for Mesothelioma Awareness Day, so we spoke with Joe Oot, a health advocate with the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center (MAA) to learn more about the risks of asbestos exposure and its link to the rare cancer mesothelioma.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in building and construction for thousands of years. It gained popularity during the Industrial Revolution, and really took off in the 1950s and 1960s because of its ability to resist fire and chemical erosion.
The health hazards of asbestos inhalation have also been known for thousands of years — since Ancient Greek and Roman times. However, it wasn’t until the early 1970s, when demand for asbestos was at its height, that the U.S. federal government started taking steps to limit its use.
Where is asbestos found today?
Although asbestos is currently banned from certain uses (e.g., corrugated paper, flooring felt, spray-applied surface applications), and no new uses are permitted (i.e., it can’t be used in products that haven’t historically contained asbestos), it’s not banned entirely in the United States. Asbestos is still found in some consumer products, as well as in materials used in construction and industrial manufacturing.
“Asbestos has not been banned in the United States, but it is heavily regulated,” Oot explains. “Companies are still mining it and producing products using it. They’re just not allowed to import it. The most common applications are in things exposed to high heat, like brake parts, clutch friction pads, and fire-resistant insulation used to protect valuable equipment and structural components.”
Asbestos is also still present in many facilities that were built prior to the introduction of regulations in the ‘70s. Visit the EPA website to learn more about where asbestos is and isn’t allowed.
What are the risks of asbestos exposure? What is mesothelioma?
Asbestos fibers are very small. “Imagine a pipe cleaner times a million,” says Oot. With a diameter as small as 0.3 microns, the fibers are very easy to inhale, and this inhalation can cause a variety of diseases, including an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma, which afflicts approximately 3000 new people in the United States every year, is most commonly found in the lungs, but it can affect the lining of the abdomen and the heart as well. It’s a challenging disease because it has an extremely long latency period. The signs and symptoms — including chest pain, shortness of breath, fluid buildup in the lungs — don’t develop for 10 to 50 years after exposure (avg. 30-35 years). By the time the cancer is detected, it’s difficult to trace it back to the first exposure.
There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, though treatments are available to slow its spread and reduce symptoms. The prognosis for a patient diagnosed with mesothelioma is 6 to 12 months, and only one-third live longer than 1 year.
There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, and second-hand exposure is just as deadly as direct.
Who’s at the greatest risk?
A recent EPA report found that workers, consumers, and the general population are all at risk of health problems caused by asbestos inhalation. Of these, the group with the highest level of potential exposure is workers exposed occupationally. According to the MAA, the workers most at-risk are:
- Construction workers
- Shipyard workers
- Railroad workers
- Plant workers
Oot notes that many workers in high-risk occupations have been exposed numerous times, inhaling airborne particles from drywall installations, demolition debris, coatings that go around pipes, paint and flooring, and so on. And within these larger groups, there are specific trades that have high levels of asbestos exposure, like plumbing and roofing.
What can you do to mitigate risk among your employees?
The good news is that mesothelioma can be prevented. “Mesothelioma is one of the very few rare cancers that is 99% preventable,” says Oot. “If we had gotten rid of asbestos entirely 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be seeing the cases we’re seeing now.”
To help prevent this disease, all employers should be aware of current asbestos legislation. This includes EPA regulations, OSHA standards, and a variety of state and local laws. Oot suggests adopting a two-pronged approach to eliminate asbestos from facilities and prevent mesothelioma among workers.
1. Use alternative materials
The main reason manufacturing and construction businesses use asbestos is for its fire-resistant properties. But many newer materials boast these same properties, without the health consequences.
Here are some of the materials currently being used or explored as asbestos alternatives:
- Thermoset plastic flour
- Amorphous silica fabrics
- Cellulose fiber
- Polyurethane foam
- Flour fillers
Oot also notes the need for fire-resistant materials has changed thanks to developments in architecture, engineering, and fire prevention. “New technology makes fire less of a detrimental thing and more of an obstacle that you can work around,” he says.
2. Follow safe practices for asbestos cleanup and removal
If you suspect that you have asbestos in your facility, the first thing you should do is have the building inspected to determine exactly where it’s being used. Also make sure you’re aware of any state or local codes governing if and how asbestos can be removed.
In facilities that use asbestos-containing materials, or during renovations or remediation projects, the best thing you can do to prevent harmful exposure is follow a strict housekeeping regimen to ensure that all asbestos particles are captured and retained. This includes any particles that may gather on workers’ clothing.
The EPA requires certified asbestos remediators to follow strict guidelines when handling and disposing of the hazardous material. For example, after bulk solids have been removed, industrial vacuum cleaners designed with HEPA filters collect and contain the remaining asbestos particles, without releasing them through the vacuum’s exhaust. HEPA filters safely capture 99.97% of debris, down to and including 0.3 microns.
Help spread the word: Mesothelioma Awareness Day, Sept. 26
Another way we can all improve worker safety is by helping organizations like the ADAO and MAA Center spread the word. Here’s what you can do:
- Raise awareness by sharing information about asbestos and mesothelioma at your workplace and on social media
- Join a Twitter chat at 1pm EST on the 26th hosted by Linda Reinstein, the head of the ADAO (hashtag #ENDmeso)
- Ensure your housekeeping program is designed to keep your workers safe
If you have questions about asbestos and mesothelioma, visit the MAA website. They can provide resources related to diagnosis, treatment, compensation, and much more. And if you’re looking for information on vacuum cleaners for asbestos remediation, contact us. We’d be happy to help you select the right equipment for your application.