What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a fibrous silicate mineral that has been mined and infused into a variety of materials, from fabrics to ceramics, for thousands of years. Due to its composition and heat resistance properties, asbestos was valued for its ability to resist fire, and because of its structure and abundance in nature, it was a relatively inexpensive resource. In antiquity, it was mixed in with raw ceramic material and provided additional strength and heat resistance.
In recent times, asbestos fibers were mixed in with textiles to provide heat and fire resistance for everything from blankets and clothing (especially firefighter bunker gear) to movie theater curtains, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, insulation, wallboard, brake shoes (which held up extremely well under heat and pressure), and even plumbing and piping.
So why is asbestos so dangerous? In essence, asbestos was everywhere because it was such an inexpensive building material which was unusually strong, heat resistant, and extremely durable. The silicate fibers were mined right out of the ground and shipped all over the world for just about any manufacturing/textile/building purpose. Unfortunately, after a century of heavy use, it was determined that asbestos was dangerous due to the same physical composition that made it so beneficial.
- The fibers were very durable and hard to destroy, even with fire.
- The fibers were small and due to their structure, they fused easily with organic material, especially mucous membranes, such as the lungs and digestive system.
- Fibers can become airborne very easily in the form of dust and other breathable particulates.
- Due to its easy availability, wide application, and affordability, it was everywhere, in just about any building material made from the early 1900s to 1982 when it was finally banned in the United States.
What diseases are caused by asbestos?
Cancer: Different varieties of cancer can be caused by exposure to asbestos fibers, especially in the respiratory system and the skin. The following diseases are most commonly associated with exposure to asbestos, but in no way is this list complete.
- Mesothelioma: A very aggressive form of cancer affecting the lungs of those exposed to handling, manufacturing, mining, or intense exposure to asbestos either airborne or through direct physical contact. The lungs often fill up with fluid, patients experience shortness of breath, chest pain, abdominal pain and swelling, bowel obstruction, and even symptoms through the reproductive system.
- Ovarian cancer: Possibly transported by the lymphatic system, the ovaries are extremely susceptible to cancer caused by asbestos.
- Laryngeal cancer: The throat and larynx are vulnerable to asbestos exposure, especially airborne particles, but also particles that have entered water systems through asbestos infused pipes.
- Asbestosis: A pulmonary disease in which the lung tissue and lining is drastically compromised, making breathing difficult, severe scarring and calcification, as well as tumors and other growths. This disease is incurable, and at best symptoms can be treated, such as with use of oxygen and medication, but otherwise is not reversible.
- Clubbed fingers: This is a vascular reaction to asbestosis in which the fingertips become swollen and misshapen. It is also a sign of serious progression of the disease and an indication of mortality and advanced disease symptoms.
- Benign pleural disease: Calcification, scar tissue, and collagen deposits within the lining of the lungs can be caused by exposure to friable asbestos fibers. Among the diseases caused by exposure to asbestos fibers, this is one of the more readily treatable varieties.
How to test for asbestos?
Since the use of asbestos was so pervasive in building materials for several decades, a comprehensive asbestos test of nearly all building materials in an area built before 1982 must be performed to prevent building on an area where the level of asbestos is dangerous. Types of building materials, such as floor tiles and acoustic ceiling tiles are usually identifiable on sight, but other surfaces from walls to pipes, fabric, wallpaper, and other items must be sampled and examined thoroughly in a lab environment. Samples are taken from these areas and are carefully inspected, even if asbestos is suspected. After abatement is done through a certified cleanup specialist, testing must be done again in order to determine that all asbestos danger has been removed.
It is not recommended to test for asbestos yourself, as safety equipment, procedural standards, and safety plans must be observed in order to prevent exposure and contamination. However, pieces that are suspected of containing dangerous levels of asbestos can be sent to a lab for testing. It should be noted, however, that due to the variety of products which contained asbestos, a comprehensive testing by professionals is the safest and most reliable way to test for asbestos.
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