Written by Jill Morrison
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Asbestos is a material that is often found in building products such as roofing shingles, floor tiles, sidings, wallboard, adhesives, sealants, and roofing felt. Asbestos is beneficial in construction because it provides insulation and fire protection. It is also known for its high tensile strength, chemical stability, and thermal stability. Unfortunately, asbestos can be very harmful to human health when its fibers are inhaled or ingested through water sources.

Asbestos Exposure Hazards

Asbestos fibers are very dangerous because they can become embedded in the lungs and cause numerous health problems. Symptoms of asbestos exposure include shortness of breath, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Serious diseases such as cancer and asbestosis may also develop with prolonged exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately, symptoms of asbestos exposure often do not appear until 15 to 40 years after the exposure. Therefore, it is important to inspect all buildings for asbestos so that the health and safety of building occupants are not compromised unknowingly.

The most common disease developed from asbestos exposure is asbestosis. This disease occurs when asbestos is inhaled and its fibers become embedded into the lungs. The body then produces an acid in attempt to dissolve these fibers. However, the fibers cannot be broken down by the acid, so the lungs develop scar tissue instead. The scarring of the lungs results in a loss of lung function and often progresses to death.

Different types of cancer may also be caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma is a common type that affects the membranes lining the lungs and abdomen. Lung cancer may also develop from asbestos inhalation because asbestos is a known carcinogen. Of course, chances for the development of lung cancer from asbestos exposure are greatly enhanced with cigarette smoking. Other cancers that may develop due to asbestos exposure include cancers of the esophagus, stomach, rectum, and colon.

Types of Asbestos

There are two different types of asbestos materials that can be found in buildings. The first type is RACM, or Regulated Asbestos-Containing Material. RACM is considered to be "friable," which means it can be crumbled or reduced to asbestos dust by hand pressure. This is the most dangerous type of asbestos because its dust can be inhaled easily. RACM products are no longer made, but they do continue to exist in some older buildings. Any time that RACM materials are discovered, they should be removed carefully according to rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The second type of asbestos is ACM, or Asbestos-Containing Material. This type is acceptable in some cases because it is typically bound up with asphalt, vinyl, or cement. ACM is considered to be "non-friable" because it cannot be reduced to dust from hand pressure. Therefore, it does not pose an immediate health hazard to building occupants. However, ACM can become RACM if it is turned to dust or pulverized in repairing, demolishing, or remodeling activities.

Asbestos Testing and Removal

Because asbestos can be harmful to human health, it is rarely used in contemporary building products. However, many older buildings continue to have asbestos in their design. All buildings should be tested for the presence of asbestos, especially friable types of asbestos. Materials can be tested by sending nickel sized samples to certified laboratories. Building occupants may also be tested personally by doctors to see whether or not they have inhaled asbestos fibers.

After finding asbestos materials through building inspections, a determination must be made about whether or not their condition is hazardous to health. Any asbestos products that can be scraped, sanded, or crumbled into dust are considered to be extremely hazardous. Hazardous asbestos must be removed with the help of asbestos contractors. Otherwise, the removal could increase the potential for asbestos fibers to be released into the air and inhaled by building occupants. A solid asbestos management program will help with maintaining safe types of asbestos products and removing hazardous types of asbestos in buildings.

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