Asbestos was once considered a ‘wonder product’ because of its many attributes, such as thermal insulation and resistance to heat and flame. A common misconception on the part of many individuals, however, is that asbestos is a hazardous man-made substance, conjured up in factories around the world for commercial use. The truth is, however, that asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that can be found in hundreds of places on just about every continent. As a matter of fact, asbestos is still mined in several of these countries, including Canada and Russia.
Asbestos is a highly-fibrous mineral with long, thin, separable fibers. The thin fibers can be spun and woven together, and possess valuable heat-resistant properties that make asbestos suitable for insulation and other such products. Indeed, for decades, asbestos was the material of choice for many industries that were manufacturing products for which heat resistance, low electrical conductivity, flexibility, and high tensile strength were essential factors.
Why is Asbestos a Health Concern?
Studies estimate that approximately 3,000 different types of commercial products include asbestos. In and of itself, the mineral is not harmful, as long as it's intact. However, when the asbestos in these products is damaged and the fibers become airborne, concerns begin to arise.
"Friable" asbestos - that which is dry and can be easily crumbled with the hand - is the culprit. Such asbestos is more likely to release fibers into the air. Spray-applied asbestos fireproofing, which was used in millions of buildings throughout the world, is of the friable variety. However, some non-friable asbestos can also release airborne fibers, particularly when sanded, chopped, hammered, cut, or otherwise manipulated. That's why, when demolishing a building that contains asbestos, proper removal is essential before the building is torn down. Since the 9-11 attacks, many rescue and emergency workers who were at the site began to show signs of asbestos contamination.
Why are Airborne Fibers Dangerous?
Inhaled asbestos fibers remain in the body and cannot be expelled. Because of this, the fibers can easily penetrate body tissues and may deposit themselves in airways and in the lung tissue. The more you're exposed, the more likely you might develop an asbestos-related disease. Most people exposed to asbestos on a very casual basis probably will not develop such a disease.
It is found in the home in areas like steam pipe insulation (see picture above), floor tiles, ceiling tiles, tile glues, and other areas, but those mentioned above are the most common places home inspectors find this material. When found, it is always recommended a licensed asbestos abatement contractor evaluate the suspected material, and remove and dispose it if it does contain asbestos. Asbestos abatement contractors can be found in the Yellow Pages, but it doesn't hurt to get several quotes from reputable companies.