In many respects asbestos has been a victim of its success. In the early 20th century, asbestos was considered a wonder substance that had several uses and was very inexpensive. The most common uses were as an insulator and as ingredient in building materials to provide a degree of fire resistance. In many parts of the US with older building stock (e.g., Chicago), you can still find numerous residential buildings with asbestos siding and asbestos mixed into the plaster. Many older commercial buildings still have asbestos containing plaster. Asbestos is also resistant to chemical damage and was used very frequently in chemistry lab benches (yes, even your high school lab) and other surfaces that were in regular contact with corrosive chemicals. Asbestos is also very effective at absorbing sound. Many older, metal kitchen sinks have asbestos coating on the underside, not to provide insulation, but to minimize the noise from water hitting the sink. As a result, asbestos was ubiquitous.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until much later that efforts were taken to limit exposure to asbestos to minimize the risks of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers. In part, this was because there is a 20-30 latency period between the exposure to asbestos and the development of mesothelioma. Another reason, at least for those not directly involved in the manufacturing of asbestos, was that it took years for asbestos containing materials to degrade sufficiently to release the asbestos fibers into the air and, it follows, for people to inhale these fibers. Finally, information obtained during asbestos litigation established that many asbestos companies knew of the danger, but did not inform the public.
While almost everyone is familiar with asbestos, most people have misconceptions regarding asbestos. Here are five of the most common:
1) Asbestos is banned. Many asbestos containing products are still manufactured and legal to use. US EPA banned asbestos products in 1989, but this rule was overturned in 1991. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, only the bans on corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial and specialty paper, and flooring felt as well as any new uses remain. Under the Clean Air Act, spray applied asbestos is banned as well as asbestos for pipe insulation and block insulation on facility components (e.g., boilers), if the materials are either molded and friable or wet-applied (and friable after drying). Under the Consumer Product Safety Act, asbestos in artificial fireplace embers and wall patching compounds is banned.
2) Asbestos must be removed. In reality, asbestos can be remain in place or even be added to a building, see 1 above. In many instances, the owners of buildings are required to conduct an asbestos study to determine the presence of asbestos containing materials, monitor it over time, provide appropriate legal notices, and train individuals who may be exposed to asbestos.
3) Building owners do not need to label asbestos containing materials. In truth, not every asbestos containing item must be labeled, otherwise you could imagine a ridiculous situation requiring several thousand asbestos containing floor tiles in a building needed to be labeled. That being said, the building owner does need to provide notice and can often bee done fairly unobtrusively in an entrance area.
4) I do not need to train my custodial staff. Many levels of asbestos training exist and while custodial staff may not need high level training, they may need awareness training because they come into contact with asbestos. For example, they may come across a broken floor tile or ceiling tile that contains asbestos. It is also worth noting that if your custodial staff undertakes more than simple custodial actions and engages in maintenance, they may well need additional training.
5) The contract for my new construction guarantees there was no asbestos used. Upon closer inspection, most architectural contracts state that no asbestos containing materials were specified for the project. That is not to say that they were not used, it simply means they were not required to be used. Again, as pointed out above, asbestos is not banned.
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