Asbestos Awareness Week: The Environmental and Health Implications of Asbestos

Author: Shawn Tallet, MAA Center

       The first week of April is designated as Global Asbestos Awareness Week, a time to educate and bring attention to the dangers and pitfalls of asbestos. A known human carcinogen, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have both decreed that there is no safe amount of asbestos exposure. Every April, experts, advocates, and victims join together to bring focus to the perils that this deadly substance causes.

A Brief History

        Asbestos wasn’t always a word that alarmed homeowners and environmental activists. A naturally-occurring silicate mineral, the substance forms in crystalline structure and has been mined and utilized for thousands of years. However, asbestos use increased substantially with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when large-scale mines were opened throughout North America. The mineral was used as an additive and fortifier in many different applications, including insulation, flooring, and roofing. Due to the material’s inherent fire resistance, durability, and strength, asbestos was a very desirable building material. It wasn’t until after builders, miners and others who worked closely with asbestos started getting sick that the mineral’s true dangers began to reveal themselves. Builders eventually found safer alternatives to asbestos, and federal regulations banned some applications of the substance and heavily regulated others.

Severe Health Risks

Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare and severe cancer. The disease is the result of cancerous cellular growth after the inhalation of asbestos fragments, making old, dilapidated asbestos-containing material incredibly dangerous. After the particulate matter is inhaled, it settles in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart, where the body is unable to remove the fragments. Symptoms of mesothelioma usually manifest after an extensive latency period ranging from a decade to 50 years, and may include chest tightness, chronic cough, and fluid buildup in the lungs. Due to the commonality of symptoms with other disorders, combined with the disease’s relative rarity, mesothelioma often goes misdiagnosed until its late stages. Prognosis for the disease is grim, with most patients facing a 12-21 month life expectancy after diagnosis. Although breakthroughs in immunotherapy and other treatments have shown some promise for patients, there is currently no cure for mesothelioma.

Environmental Threats

Due to the toxicity of asbestos, improper disposal can pose serious environmental hazards as a pollutant. While there’s no surefire way to test for asbestos without a professional, most homes built before 1980 are likely to contain the substance somewhere. Asbestos-containing materials in poor condition can compromise air quality because they may release fibers into the air we breathe. If one suspects their home may be contaminated, they should call a licensed professional to test the area and determine if asbestos is present.  This is especially important to do before attempting to take on any do-it-yourself project. Furthermore, in an effort to maintain public health, there are stringent policies and requirements for proper, responsible asbestos disposal. Generally, specific landfills in municipalities are designated for discarded asbestos-containing materials. Adherence to these practices can greatly diminish environmental hazards, such as contaminated waterways and urban environments.

Global Asbestos Awareness Week

     More than 60 countries around the globe have placed outright bans on asbestos, including all of the European Union, Australia, and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Canada is currently issuing a ban which will go into effect in 2018. While asbestos usage has diminished substantially in the United States, there is still no ban in effect. The goal of Global Asbestos Awareness Week is to ultimately focus on the banning of mining, manufacturing and use of asbestos, prevent exposure, and increase compliance and enforcement of existing laws and regulations. Through education and progress, the threat of asbestos can be greatly diminished and eradicated for the health of future generations.

by Editor

Thursday, March 29th, 2018 at 14:21
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