Asbestos

Health Risks | Around the Home | Naturally Occurring Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral fiber found in rocks and soil. It was once widely used in building materials and products to strengthen them and provide heat insulation and fire resistance. It is still used in some products today. When it is intact and undisturbed, asbestos-containing materials generally do not pose a health risk. If asbestos-containing materials are damaged, disturbed, or deteriorate over time, there is a health risk because the microscopic fibers can be inhaled into the lungs.


Health Risks

What's the likelihood of developing health problems from asbestos exposure?

Being exposed to asbestos doesn't mean you'll develop health problems. Many factors need to be considered, including:

A doctor can help you determine whether you are at risk for health problems from asbestos exposure.

What are the symptoms of asbestos-related disease?

Most people don't show any signs or symptoms of asbestos-related disease for 10-20 years or more after exposure. When symptoms do appear, they can be similar to those of other health problems. Only a doctor can tell if your symptoms are asbestos-related.

What are some types of asbestos-related diseases?

Non-cancerous

Asbestosis is scarring of the lungs. It's typically caused by very high exposure levels over a long period of time, as seen in work-related asbestos exposure. Smoking increases the risk of developing asbestosis. Some late stage symptoms include progressive shortness of breath, a persistent cough, and chest pain.

Pleural changes or pleural plaques include thickening and hardening of the pleura (the lining that covers the lungs and chest cavity). Most people won't have symptoms, but some may have decreased lung function. Some people may develop persistent shortness of breath during exercise or even at rest if they have significantly decreased lung function.

Cancerous

Lung cancer is cancer of the lungs and lung passages. Cigarette smoking combined with asbestos exposure greatly increases the likelihood of lung cancer. Lung cancer caused by smoking or asbestos looks the same. Lung cancer symptoms can vary. Some late-stage symptoms can include chronic cough, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, and coughing up blood.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer mostly associated with asbestos exposure. It occurs in the covering of the lungs and sometimes the lining of the abdominal cavity. Some late-stage symptoms include chest pain, persistent shortness of breath, and unexplained weight loss. Coughing up blood isn't common.

Can asbestos-related disease be serious?

Asbestos-related disease can be serious, though not everyone exposed to asbestos develops health problems. Health problems that develop may range from manageable to severe – and some may cause death.

Tests to diagnose asbestos-related disease can vary depending on your medical history and physical exam performed by your doctor. Treatment options also depend on what type of asbestos-related disease is diagnosed.


Around the Home

Where could asbestos be found in my home?

While most products made today don't contain asbestos, there are many which still might. Testing may be the only way to know if a product contains asbestos. The following are examples of where asbestos hazards may be found in the home.

Learn more about where you can find asbestos on EPA's asbestos website.

How do I identify materials that contain asbestos?

Unless it is labeled, you can't tell whether material contains asbestos simply by looking at it. If in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional. Taking samples yourself isn't recommended. A professional should take samples for analysis, since they know what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. If done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone. Material that is in good condition and won't be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) should be left alone. Only material that is damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled.

To test a material for asbestos, contact an asbestos consultant or laboratory listed in the phone book's yellow pages or online. Search under "Asbestos Consulting and Testing" or "Labs, Analytical - Asbestos."

What should be done about asbestos in my home?

If the asbestos material is in good shape and won't be disturbed, it's likely that nothing needs to be done. Monitor the material for deterioration and prevent the material from getting damaged or disturbed. If asbestos material is more than slightly damaged, or if you are going to make changes in your home that might disturb it, you should consider hiring a professional to repair or remove the material.

Repair usually involves either sealing or covering asbestos material.

Removal may be required when remodeling or making major changes to your home, or when asbestos material is damaged and cannot be repaired. Removal is usually more expensive than repair.

Federal and state laws govern asbestos removal and disposal. For more information, including directions for building owners, construction contractors, and asbestos abatement contractors see Labor and Industries' asbestos removal requirements.

Can I clean up the asbestos myself?

If you are the homeowner and the home is not used for commercial purposes you can clean it up yourself. You must follow federal and state laws. The Department of Ecology administers the Asbestos National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) and requires notification before demolishing or renovating facilities with asbestos containing materials. In areas of the state with a local Clean Air Agency, the responsibility is delegated to them.

Before beginning any demolition or remodel project, you must check for asbestos and follow the specific guidelines for properly identifying, handling, removing, and disposing of any asbestos that might be disturbed. For regulations and guidance, contact your local Clean Air Agency or Ecology Regional Office.

After a disaster, cleaning or fixing up a home can be complicated by the presence of asbestos. We recommend contacting an asbestos abatement professional to assist you with repairs if you think asbestos is in your home. For more best practices, see Homeowner's and Renter's Guide to Asbestos Cleanup After Disasters (PDF).

How can I prevent asbestos exposure?

What about asbestos in schools?

EPA regulates asbestos in schools under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). The Act requires school districts to:

For specific information, see Asbestos in School Buildings - EPA.


Naturally Occurring Asbestos

How is naturally occurring asbestos released?

Naturally occurring asbestos mineral fibers are found in certain types of rocks and soil. They can be released into the air by human activities such as construction, grading, quarrying, and surface mining. If naturally occurring asbestos is not disturbed and fibers are not released into the air, then it is not a health risk.

Where is naturally occurring asbestos found in Washington?

Asbestos occurs naturally in certain geologic settings but is most common in ultrabasic/ultramafic rocks. Reported asbestos occurrences and potential zones of ultramafic rock are mapped by the Department of Natural Resources. View the map, Potential zones of naturally occurring asbestos (PDF).

Naturally occurring asbestos has been found on a landslide deposit on Sumas Mountain in Whatcom County. As this area erodes, the asbestos is carried and deposited along with sediment into Swift Creek and Sumas River, north to the Canadian border. The Whatcom County Health Department and the Washington State Department of Health have issued health advisories to residents along Swift Creek and the Sumas River. The health advisories outline measures people can take to limit their exposure.

What should I do if I think asbestos is on my property?

If you think your property is in a potential zone of naturally occurring asbestos, you can hire an experienced geologist to assess your property's rock and soil characteristics. If needed, samples can be collected for laboratory testing.

If an area is confirmed to have asbestos, should precautions be taken?

It depends. If soil and rock that contain naturally occurring asbestos isn't disturbed and stirred into the air, then there isn't a health risk.

If naturally occurring asbestos fibers are stirred into the air by human activities, such as construction, then approaches can be taken to limit exposures. For guidance on reducing potential exposures, see EPA's Approaches for Reducing Exposure to Naturally Occurring Asbestos (PDF).

Content Source: Indoor Air Quality Program