Because asbestos still lingers in the places we live and work, it is important to educate yourself about asbestos safety. Asbestos awareness can help prevent asbestos exposure, which can cause mesothelioma and other health issues.
Throughout most of the 20th century, manufacturers added toxic asbestos to thousands of products. Many of these items, particularly building construction materials, can still be found in homes, offices and factories across the U.S.
Workers in certain industries continue to encounter asbestos on the job, including those who work in shipyards, power plants, chemical plants or in the railroad and automotive industries.
For decades, most workers and the general public had no idea asbestos exposure could lead to serious diseases like maligant mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Some companies even hid the health risks of asbestos from their employees. Today, however, more people are aware of the dangers, especially those who work in industries that traditionally used the toxic mineral.
Prevention at Work
In the early 1970s, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) placed regulations on asbestos, including acceptable levels of asbestos in the air at worksites. OSHA currently requires employers to test the air and keep asbestos levels below 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc) during an 8-hour work shift.
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In addition to monitoring exposure limits, OSHA requires employers to take further steps to protect workers from asbestos. These steps include:
- Perform air monitoring and keep records
- Complete regular assessments of asbestos risks
- Communicate asbestos hazards to workers
- Use proper work practices and controls to limit exposures
- Offer respiratory protection if exposure limits are exceeded
- Provide asbestos awareness training
- Provide medical surveillance to workers exposed to asbestos
OSHA has three unique asbestos guidelines depending on the type of workplace. There are specific standards for general industry, the construction industry and the shipyard industry.
How to Protect Yourself from Asbestos at Work
Although awareness of asbestos health risks has improved over the years, employers still may not be taking the proper steps to prevent harmful workplace exposures. In fact, a 2015 study reported airborne asbestos levels exceeding OSHA standards at many job sites from 1984 to 2011.
This finding stresses how important it is for workers to take their own precautions around asbestos and report any unsafe work conditions to OSHA. If you work in one of many occupations where asbestos exposure may occur, you can take the following steps to help prevent asbestos exposure and related health conditions:
- Ask your employer about any asbestos health risks in your workplace
- Never cut, saw, drill, sand, scrape or otherwise disturb asbestos-containing materials
- Always wear proper protective gear when your work may disturb asbestos
- Don’t bring home shoes or work clothes that may have been contaminated with asbestos
- Don’t sweep, dust or vacuum asbestos debris
- Always dispose of asbestos materials according to state and federal regulations
When removing asbestos materials, follow proper abatement methods to ensure complete safety. Never perform asbestos work for your employer if you are not trained and certified. If you lack the proper training in asbestos removal, leave this type of work to professionals.
Prevention in the Home
Most people never encounter asbestos in their homes, even though many houses built before the late 1970s have asbestos-containing materials in multiple locations. Because asbestos use was so prevalent in the past, it is important to take key precautions to keep you and your loved ones safe from asbestos dangers.
Harmful exposures often occur when homeowners perform renovations that disturb asbestos. People may also improperly remove concealed asbestos in good condition that is otherwise safe, creating health risks where none existed before.
Some of the in-home items that may contain asbestos include:
- Attic insulation
- Roof shingles and tar
- Drywall and drywall glue
- Floor tiles
- Popcorn ceilings
- Joint compounds
- Wrapping on pipes and electrical wires
Asbestos that is damaged or has become dry and crumbling over time is called friable asbestos. Asbestos in this state is especially dangerous because toxic fibers can easily break off, circulate through the air and be inhaled.
Damaged or friable asbestos products should be removed from the house immediately. A licensed abatement company should perform the job, as this is the best way to protect you and your family from asbestos exposure.
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How to Protect Your Family from Asbestos
Anyone performing renovation work on a home built prior to 1980 should be cautious of asbestos. There’s no way to tell if a product in your home contains asbestos unless you consult a professional and have samples sent to a certified laboratory for testing.
You can take the following steps to protect yourself from asbestos in your home:
- Ask your home inspector or real estate agent if there is asbestos in your home
- If you have an older home, don’t perform DIY renovations where asbestos may be present
- If you think you found asbestos in your home, leave it alone
- If you think you found asbestos in your home, leave it alone
- Regularly check known asbestos products in your home for signs of wear
- If an asbestos product is worn or has become damaged, call an abatement specialist
- Keep people away from all areas that may contain asbestos
- Never attempt to remove asbestos without help from a professional
Unless you disturb materials that contain asbestos, they pose minimal risk to you and your family. Harmful exposures may occur when you attempt to remove contaminated products, especially if you cut, saw, sand or drill them. If you’re concerned about asbestos in your home, the safest course of action is to talk to a knowledgeable professional.
Asbestos in Schools and Public Buildings
The same asbestos-containing materials used extensively in home construction also were used to build schools and other public buildings where people work, learn and visit each day.
Government organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have regulations and recommendations to help protect people from asbestos health risks in these buildings.
The EPA enforces the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), which requires building owners to comply with federal laws on asbestos. NESHAP has strict rules for building renovations and demolitions to make sure these activities are completed safely without putting people at risk for asbestos exposure.
The EPA also regulates asbestos in schools. The agency helps keep students and teachers at public and nonprofit private schools safe from asbestos with the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). AHERA requires every school to inspect for asbestos-containing materials and prepare a plan to manage asbestos risks and prevent exposures. Every school must keep the asbestos management plan on site and update it with each inspection.
Monitoring Your Health
People who have been exposed to asbestos but have not developed an asbestos-related disease should be diligent about monitoring their health on a regular basis. Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions typically arise 15 to 50 years after the initial exposure to asbestos.
Ways to Detect or Prevent Mesothelioma:
- Review Your Health
- Keep track of changes to your health since you were exposed to asbestos, noting any new respiratory symptoms or new pains in your chest or abdomen. If new symptoms arise, keep a journal of the changes and share it with your doctor.
- Maintain a Healthy Diet
- A well-rounded diet that combines fruits, vegetables and whole grains can lower your risk for cancer. Regularly eat foods rich in antioxidants to help your body repair itself and fend off disease.
- Get a Mesothelioma Blood Test
- A simple blood test that can detect mesothelioma before symptoms appear was approved by the FDA. Dubbed Mesomark, this test can be administered in a doctor’s office. Find out if your doctor has access to the test.
- Talk to your doctor about regular medical tests
- People exposed to asbestos can also be monitored via a diagnostic imaging test that measures how well the lungs are working such as an X-ray or a pulmonary function test.
Keeping track of any changes to your health is essential for catching the early warning signs of disease. If mesothelioma symptoms arise — especially chest pain, shortness of breath or a persistent cough — see a doctor immediately.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about your exposure to asbestos and ask how frequently you should be tested for signs of disease. To help diagnose potential health problems early on, your doctor may recommend regular chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests, even if you are experiencing no symptoms of disease.
When mesothelioma is diagnosed in its early stages of development, there are more treatment options available that may improve your survival and quality of life. Mesothelioma is much more difficult to treat when it reaches an advanced stage.
Researchers are investigating ways to prevent the development of mesothelioma among asbestos-exposed workers. Much of this early research is being conducted in labs on animals and in test tubes.
For example, researchers at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania are investigating flaxseed lignans as chemopreventative agents for asbestos-related diseases. They are studying this in test tubes and in mice.
According to a 2018 study published in the journal Antioxidants, Perelman researchers discovered that a synthetic version of a flaxseed lignan protected cells against asbestos-induced damage.
Perelman researchers are also investigating new biomarkers to help identify asbestos-exposed workers who may be at risk of developing mesothelioma or lung cancer. The goal is to identify the people most at risk and use chemopreventative agents to prevent asbestos damage.
Smoking Cessation Programs
If you have been exposed to asbestos and you are a smoker, you may be able to reduce your chances of developing an asbestos-related condition by quitting smoking.
Studies show that smoking damages the lungs and can greatly increase the risk of developing lung cancer and asbestosis. There is no evidence that smoking increases a person’s risk of mesothelioma. If you have a history of asbestos exposure, you should find a smoking cessation program to stop smoking immediately.
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Last Modified March 5, 2019