Asbestos has been used for its heat and fire-resistance properties dating back to ancient Rome. However, the mineral that was once used for its resistance against fire is also a potential hazard should a fire or a natural disaster happen. The fire-proofing properties of asbestos are a double-edged sword. A building full of asbestos can collapse after a fire, sending dust laden with the dangerous fibers into the air. Should any other natural disaster occur, such as a flood or tornado, homes and buildings built prior to the 1980s’ may send out millions of asbestos fibers into the air.
Asbestos Use in Homes and Buildings
After the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned people of the dangers of asbestos fibers in the 1970s’, homes and buildings were eventually built without using asbestos. However, prior to the early 1980s’, asbestos was used quite a lot in homes, buildings, at job sites, and in products. Today, should a natural disaster or fire break out and come into contact with any structure that contains asbestos, its fibers, which as aforementioned are fire and heat-resistant, can become airborne and travel for several miles.
According to the EPA, in the summer of 1993, the community of Lincoln County, Missouri experienced a devastating flood that left over 50,000 people without homes, and several others with broken appliances, household items, automobiles, and more. As a result, county staff were responsible for disposing of the debris. After investigations, it was found that a good majority of the debris, specifically car parts, shingles, wood, and home insulation, was riddled with asbestos fibers. This of course, posed risks to the entire community.
Although no one knows for sure when a natural disaster will strike, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that taking proactive measures beforehand will reduce the risk of asbestos ingestion when and if a disaster occurs. For example, if waste hazards need to be burned after a disaster, proper precautions should be used at all times:
Shower facilities should be available to all workers.
The general public should be warned about the work being performed.
Coolant vests, face masks, and other safety equipment should be utilized.
Burnup and cleaning sites should always meet federal and state guidelines.
Local authorities should always be on-board to help meet regulations and safety issues, such as the local fire department and emergency response team.
Anyone who has been diagnosed with asbestos cancer or another asbestos related disease is advised to seek legal assistance due to the complex nature of these cases. The Mesothelioma Lawyer Center has in-depth information on asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, and legal information for each of the 50 states, including information on asbestos exposure in Missouri.
Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral composed of shiny flakes that resemble mica. When heated rapidly to a high temperature, this crystalline mineral expands into low-density, accordion-like strands. In this form, vermiculite is a lightweight, odorless and fire-resistant material that has been used in numerous applications, such as insulation for attics and walls.
Vermiculite forms over millions of years due to weathering of the mineral biotite. Unfortunately, biotite deposits are often in close proximity to deposits of diopside, which transform into asbestos due to the same weathering processes that create vermiculite. Asbestos can be easily inhaled because it tends to separate into microscopic particles that become airborne. Exposure to asbestos can result in lung cancer, mesothelioma, inflammation of the chest cavity, and a scarring disease of the lungs known as asbestosis. The risk of contracting these diseases generally increases with the duration and intensity of exposure to asbestos, and smokers may face an even greater risk of lung cancer.
The largest and oldest vermiculite mine in the United States was started in the 1920s near Libby, Montana. Although it was known that the vermiculite there was contaminated with tremolite, a highly toxic form of asbestos, the mine continued to operate until stiffer environmental controls finally forced it to close in 1990. Sadly, by this time, the damage had already been done; the asbestos-infused insulator had been installed in tens of millions of homes in the United States alone. As over 70% of all vermiculite sold in the U.S. from 1919 to 1990 originated from the Libby mine, it is safe to assume that all vermiculite insulation found in buildings is toxic.
Vermiculite insulation is a pebble-like or rectangular, chunky product about the size of a pencil eraser, and usually gray-brown or silver-gold in color. Inspectors should be on guard for empty bags in the attic that bear the name Zonolite®, as this was the commercial name for vermiculite mined in the notorious Libby mine.
What should be done about asbestos found in homes?
Home owners should never disturb vermiculite or any asbestos insulation. These products must be airborne to cause a health risk through inhalation, which most likely happens when they are removed or handled. The following are some additional tips:
Consider that contractors may track vermiculite into the house if they have to enter the attic.
Dispose of waste and debris contaminated with asbestos in tight containers.
Do not allow children to play in an attic.
Do not launder clothing exposed to vermiculite with family clothing.
Do not overreact. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), asbestos-related illnesses are usually the result of high levels of exposure for long periods of time. Left undisturbed in the attic, asbestos is generally not a life-threatening situation. Furthermore, air generally flows into the attic from the house, and not the other way around.
Do not use the attic as a storage area.
Hire a professional asbestos contractor before remodeling or renovating if these processes may disturb the vermiculite.
Never use compressed air for cleaning around vermiculite. Avoid dry-sweeping, vacuuming, shoveling, or other dry clean-up methods. Wet methods are best.
Seal cracks and holes in attics, such as around light fixtures and ceiling fans, where insulation may pass through.
Use proper respiratory protection. Disposable respirators or dust masks are not appropriate for avoiding asbestos exposure.
In summary, vermiculite is a potentially hazardous mineral used as an insulator in buildings, but its dangers can be mitigated with some simple precautions.
Historically, asbestos has been included in products around the home and have been one of the sources for construction material in the early 20th century. Both homeowners and construction workers have dealt with asbestos concerns during repairs, remodels and demolitions. In many cases, the presence of asbestos goes completely undetected, placing those on site at risk for inhaling airborne asbestos fibers.
The use of asbestos in homes was so extensive that it’s best to assume most homes built before the 2003 ban could contain some amount of asbestos products. Homeowners who perform do-it-yourself projects should especially understand the risks of asbestos exposure and familiarize themselves with common locations for asbestos products so they can avoid them.
Most countries have established strict regulations to minimize exposure levels and prevent future asbestos-related diseases from developing. According to the International Labor Organization, about 100,000 workers pass away from an asbestos-related disease each year.
Asbestos exposure has been linked to lung cancer, peritoneal mesothelioma and other cancers. All of these conditions cause respiratory problems and are difficult to treat. Common symptoms include coughing, chest pain, abdominal pain, and shortness of breath, but such symptoms can take 50 years to arise after exposure occurs. If you experience respiratory problems and suspect you were exposed to asbestos during a home project, it’s important to undergo screening by a doctor who is familiar with asbestos-related disease.
What to Look For
Homeowners should not be too concerned about asbestos if their home was built after 1980. But a home built before this date is likely to contain asbestos-containing materials and certain locations present more hazards than others. Common locations for asbestos products include:
Areas inside homes that needed insulating and fireproofing were hotspots for asbestos-containing materials. Some of the most common asbestos products used for home construction included:
It’s important to understand that not all asbestos-containing materials present a health hazard. If asbestos products are in good condition and aren’t damaged, asbestos fibers will not become airborne. However, any disturbance to asbestos products can result in airborne asbestos fibers.
If you’re performing a construction project and suspect the presence of asbestos-containing materials, hire a professional to come check them out. Handling asbestos is very dangerous and strict laws regulate how asbestos can be removed from a home. Proper disposal procedures are required as well.
Bio: Jensen Whitmer has been writing for the Mesothelioma Center for more than three years and he has an interest in spreading awareness about the hazardous effects of asbestos exposure. I thank him for being a “guest blogger” on my site and for sharing this important information.