Working Safely With Asbestos

Utah asbestos graphic information

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By: Nic Sells

While many may associate asbestos with building products, like insulation and fireproofing, the history of mankind’s use of this naturally occurring mineral goes much deeper into the basement of history.

Asbestos has been used since ancient times. Embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth for preservation. King Charlemagne of France had a tablecloth weaved with asbestos fibers to prevent the frequently-occurring fires from his feasts and, apparent, wild celebrations. In 1725 Benjamin Franklin sold a fireproof purse made from the mineral to an Irish physician, naturalist and collector—no doubt fascinated by the curiosity of the textile. And, in the 1850s, the Parisian Fire Brigade donned jackets and helmets crafted from the non-flammable material.

Although the dangers of asbestos are better understood now, these historical uses (perhaps some even humorous) weren’t without merit. Asbestos is non-flammable, possesses incredible thermal stability and has a higher tensile strength than steel. But it’s these notable physical characteristics that makes asbestos so harmful to our health. When inhaled, asbestos lodges deep in human lungs and cannot come out.

Prolonged exposure to asbestos leads to lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. The detrimental health effects of asbestos were first documented long ago. The Greek geographer Strabo wrote of a “sickness of the lungs” in the slaves who worked with it. The Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote of a disease of workers in asbestos mines. And in 1897 an Austrian doctor, clearly ahead of his time, pinned his patient’s pulmonary problems on the inhalation of asbestos fibers.

But, still, asbestos use raged from the 1940s to the 1970s. Today, you can find it in floor tiles, cement, joint compound, brake pads, insulation, roof coating and even wire.

The role of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ) is to protect your health against hazards like asbestos. We do this by informing and educating those at risk of exposure of the serious health risks. And also by enforcing policies and regulations established by federal agencies—like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

For example, The DAQ requires Demolition Notification Forms and a 10-business-day waiting period for any wrecking, salvage or removal of any load-supporting structural member of regulated facilities. These protocols aren’t intended to slow down projects; they’re to protect human health and the environment.

And these protective measures are needed, because, again, asbestos exposure is hazardous to your health. And you may be surprised to hear that it is still being used in U.S. construction and industries, even though other industrialized countries have banned its use.

By the late 1970s, spurred on by a growing public understanding of asbestos’ destructive health consequences, a dramatic decline in its use began around the world. This downslide continued. In 2005, asbestos use was banned throughout the European Union.

In April 2019, the EPA took action to protect the public from asbestos exposure. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the EPA ensures no asbestos products that are no longer on the market can return without evaluation. The EPA will also put in place necessary restrictions prohibiting use. The agency is carefully evaluating continued asbestos use and taking any necessary actions to address the associated risks

Unfortunately, these actions don’t solve the problem of those asbestos-containing products already out there. If you’re glaring at the paint on your walls and ceilings, imagining the insulation behind those walls and ceilings, and wondering if it’s riddled with asbestos, just waiting to make you sick, don’t panic. Take comfort knowing your air is safe to breathe. Take a nice, deep breath. The truth is asbestos doesn’t pose a threat unless the fibers become airborne. Asbestos-containing materials that are in good condition, and not being disturbed, should not release any fibers into the air.

If you suspect asbestos is in your home the best thing to do is leave it alone. Just leave it alone! But if you are planning a remodel, or otherwise think suspect material will be disturbed in any way, or think it’s in poor condition and releasing fibers into the air, you need to follow some important steps to protect yourself:

  • Hire a certified asbestos contractor to obtain the sample, or follow the precautions on our website if you choose to gather it yourself.
  • Hire a certified asbestos abatement contractor to properly remove and dispose of any material that contains the mineral.
Asbestos exposure can be hazardous. But with adequate knowledge of the risks, you can protect yourself from the damaging health effects caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. For more information about asbestos, removal, disposal, training and access to resources, visit our page.

I am a recent graduate of Weber State University with a degree in communication. When I’m not tending to my chickens and garden at home, you can find me biking, hiking or fishing with my wife and two-year-old son. A Utah native, I love this place we are all lucky enough to call home.