When Does Asbestos Exposure Become Dangerous?
Asbestos is a mineral which occurs naturally in 20 U.S. states, the largest deposits being found in California, South Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey. According to OSHA, over 40% of the land area contains asbestos, while various levels of natural asbestos are also present in drinking water. Moreover, the massive exploitation of asbestos which occurred throughout the past century has created additional sources of exposure: workplaces and buildings. Thereby, nearly everyone has somehow been exposed to asbestos at least once during their lifetime.
However, considering the high prevalence of asbestos in the environment, the number of people who develop asbestos-related diseases may seem disproportionate. Every year, asbestos exposure in the U.S. is responsible for:
- 2,500-3,000 cases of mesothelioma
- 4,800 lung cancer cases
- 1,500 cases of asbestosis
Exposure to asbestos occurs when one inhales or ingests airborne fibers. While the carcinogenic nature of asbestos is undeniable and exposure should be avoided at any cost, most studies indicate that the risk of developing a disease is highly dependant on the duration and source of exposure. In other words, asbestos exposure is very likely to result in a life-threatening illness when it takes place over the course of several years and when the individual breathes or swallows large amounts of fibers.
The vast majority of people suffering from asbestos-related diseases became ill as a result of occupational exposure, as the level of airborne asbestos fibers in workplaces such as construction sites, paper mills or shipyards was incredibly high. Additionally, most of them have held down a job involving asbestos for at least 5 years, which also increased their chances of being diagnosed with a disease several decades later.
How Dangerous Is Domestic Asbestos Exposure?
The risk of exposure from old building materials is relatively low. Although millions of houses across the country have asbestos-containing products, exposure is unlikely to occur as long as you avoid disturbing suspect building materials. According to a 2003 study, the concentration of asbestos fibers in the air of a house with undamaged products is 0.0002 fibers per cubic centimeter, which is nearly three times below the permissible limit set by OSHA.
Nevertheless, when domestic exposure does happen, inhabitants' risk of developing a disease will depend on the type of asbestos product they were in contact with, as well as on the duration of exposure. Friable building materials are significantly more dangerous than bonded products, as toxic fibers are more likely to be released in the air with disturbance. Some of the most common household friable asbestos products are:
- spray-on insulation
- pipe lagging
- boiler insulation
- roofing felt
- mastic adhesives
- acoustical plaster
- attic insulation
- caulking and putties
- artificial ashes and embers
Similarly, your chances of becoming ill increase with the time you are exposed to airborne fibers from household products. Although domestic exposure is considerably less dangerous than occupational exposure, it is recommended to regularly check the asbestos-containing products in your home for signs of damage. With aging, most building materials become brittle, which facilitates the release of asbestos fibers.
If the asbestos-containing products in your house are not in good condition, it is better to have them properly removed by a certified asbestos abatement company to avoid exposure. Even though the risk of developing a disease as a result of domestic exposure is low, there have been cases when people were diagnosed with serious illnesses after having lived in a house with old asbestos products. You can find a list of professional asbestos removal companies at the end of our downloadable guide.