Asbestos 101: Understanding the Risks in Older Buildings

Asbestos, a term that often brings a sense of unease, is a mineral known for its heat resistance, strength, and insulation properties. Its use was widespread in the construction industry until the late 20th century when health risks associated with its exposure came to light. Older buildings, particularly those constructed before the 1980s, often contain asbestos in various forms, posing potential health risks to occupants and those involved in building renovations or demolitions. Here’s a fundamental understanding of asbestos, its risks, and how to manage it in older buildings.

Asbestos: What Is It, And Where Can It Be Found?

Asbestos is not a single mineral, but a term that refers to six naturally occurring fibrous minerals. They are resistant to heat, fire, and various chemicals, properties that were valued in many industries, most notably construction. In older buildings, asbestos can be present in a multitude of places. Some of the common areas include:

  1. Insulation for pipes, boilers, and around furnaces.
  2. Vinyl floor tiles, adhesives, and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring.
  3. Roof shingles, cement, and siding.
  4. Textured paint, patching compounds for walls and ceilings, and walls and floors around wood-burning stoves.
  5. Certain other heat-resistant fabrics and automobile parts.

In these areas and more, asbestos has been used for its beneficial properties. However, it’s when these materials are disturbed that asbestos presents a hazard.

The Hazard: Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos becomes a health risk when materials containing it are damaged or disturbed. When this happens, microscopic fibers are released into the air. If inhaled, these fibers can become trapped in the lungs, leading to health issues over time.

The body cannot easily expel these fibers once they are lodged in lung or body tissues. Over time, they cause inflammation and scarring. Long-term inhalation of asbestos fibers can lead to serious respiratory health complications. The three primary diseases associated with these conditions are:

  1. Asbestosis: A progressive, long-term respiratory condition that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and eventual lung damage.

  2. Lung Cancer: A malignant tumor that blocks the lung’s air passages. Smoking significantly increases the risk of lung cancer in individuals exposed to asbestos.

  3. Mesothelioma: A rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, chest cavity, or abdomen. It is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure.

One of the insidious aspects of these diseases is their long latency period. Symptoms may not become apparent for 20 to 50 years after exposure, making these conditions often challenging to link directly to asbestos exposure and diagnose early.

Given these significant health risks, it’s essential for building owners, managers, and tenants to understand how to manage asbestos in their buildings effectively, particularly when dealing with older structures that are more likely to contain this hazardous material.

Safe Management Of Asbestos In Older Buildings

The fact that a building contains asbestos doesn’t inherently mean that the health of the occupants is endangered. When asbestos-containing materials are intact and undisturbed, they do not pose a significant health risk. However, if these materials are damaged – during renovations, for example – the risk of asbestos exposure becomes real. So, how do we safely manage asbestos in older buildings?

Identification And Assessment

The first step is identifying whether asbestos is present. Asbestos cannot be confirmed by sight alone, and only lab testing of a sample can give a definitive answer. As such, if you suspect the presence of asbestos in your building, it’s crucial to hire a certified asbestos professional. They can safely take samples for analysis and, if asbestos is present, provide guidance on the next steps.

Asbestos Management Plan

Once asbestos is identified, creating an asbestos management plan is a critical next step. This plan should detail where the asbestos is located, the condition it’s in, and how it will be managed. Often, if the asbestos-containing material is in good condition and will not be disturbed, it’s best to leave it alone and manage it in place. The plan should be reviewed and updated regularly.

Asbestos Abatement

However, there are situations where asbestos-containing materials might need to be disturbed or removed, such as during renovations or demolitions. In these cases, asbestos abatement is necessary. This process should only be undertaken by professional abatement contractors who have the necessary training and equipment to carry out the job safely. Asbestos abatement may involve either sealing (encapsulation) or removing the asbestos-containing materials.

Training And Awareness

Finally, it’s crucial to ensure that anyone who could potentially come into contact with asbestos, such as maintenance staff or contractors, is aware of its presence and properly trained. Workers need to understand where asbestos is located, the risks involved, and the necessary precautions to avoid disturbance and exposure.

By understanding what asbestos is, the risks it poses, and how to manage those risks, building owners and managers can ensure the safety and health of their occupants. While dealing with asbestos may seem daunting, remember that professional help is available. Asbestos professionals can guide you through the process, helping you manage this hazard effectively and protect the health of everyone in the building.

It’s crucial to remember that, despite the risks, asbestos can be managed effectively when the right steps are taken. Always opt for professional help when dealing with this potentially hazardous material, and ensure that everyone involved has the appropriate training and knowledge. In doing so, you can provide a safe environment for all occupants of older buildings, keeping the past’s architectural charm while protecting against its hazards.