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Is Removal of Asbestos Necessary?

The level of severity of airborne asbestos fibers is based on the state or condition of the material, how much air moves throughout the area where it is present, and the frequency that people may be exposed to the material.

In cases when the asbestos material is exposed and friable, (crumbling or breaking apart) it is more likely to become released into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommend leaving asbestos material alone unless it starts to crumble and break apart.

In cases when asbestos material is in good shape, it can be addressed by being encapsulated by an asbestos removal and abatement professional. Encapsulation is a process that coats the asbestos material with a heat-resistant sealant that produces a protective barrier around the substance and changes the asbestos fibers into a form that is more secure. The encapsulation process is a temporary measure and may cost almost as much as removal, and it may make removal at a later date a more complex procedure.

Enclosing asbestos-containing ducts or pipes into boxes or walls may help protect them from damage. This solution should only be used if the associated asbestos material is in good shape. Enclosing the material keeps fibers from releasing into the air and keeps the area from being an immediate health hazard.

Although removal is expensive and poses a risk of particle release into the air, it may be necessary for major remodeling jobs or in situations where asbestos damage is extensive and cannot be repaired. This is especially true when asbestos material is friable and cannot be repaired with encapsulation or enclosure methods.

Asbestos removal is a difficult procedure and should only be done by a trained abatement professional since improper removal can cause worse health risks.

When Asbestos Poses a Health Risk

Asbestos fibers do not normally become a health risk until they become airborne. Once they are released into the air, they may be inhaled and this is the primary way that the hazardous fibers enter the body. A small amount of asbestos fibers may be present in the air always and may be breathed by people without ill effects. Many people may be exposed to these tiny amounts of asbestos daily, but may not develop any asbestos-related health effects.

Just because a home or workplace has been constructed with asbestos products, this may not necessarily mean there is a health risk. Research has shown that when asbestos products are in good condition and are not disturbed, they do not pose a considerable health risk.

Different risk levels of asbestos depend on the different forms of the asbestos materials.  When asbestos products are firmly bound in a compound that keeps the fibers in a compressed state, such as an asbestos-cement sheeting, asbestos removal may not be necessary and the fibers may pose little risk. The dangers arise when asbestos fibers float into the air in high levels, increasing the incidence of inhalation. An example is when asbestos sheeting becomes damaged or broken and fibers become loose and airborne.

In cases where asbestos fibers are not bound, such as in sprayed roof insulation and pipe lagging, high concentrations of asbestos fibers are more likely to be loose and released into the air, causing increased incidence of inhalation and health risks.

Most people that become ill from asbestos exposure have worked in industries that produce or install asbestos products or have worked in the asbestos milling or mining industries. Also, members of the immediate families of these workers may also suffer health effects. These workers may have carried asbestos fibers to their homes on clothing or other objects they may have transported to and from the workplace.

In most asbestos-related illness cases, exposure was from high levels of the airborne dust from the processes or procedures involved in the workplace.


Materials and Products That May Contain Asbestos

Many asbestos-containing materials were produced through the 1970’s. These products are not as prevalent in manufacturing and building today; however, many older buildings that were constructed with these materials may still be presently occupied. This poses a health risk because they may still release harmful asbestos fibers into the air that may be inhaled.

The following are some household and commercial products that may include asbestos-containing materials:

  • household products: ironing board covers, hairdryers, stove top pads, some blanket materials, fire-proof gloves, asbestos clothing, old pot holders, various household appliances, fabrics used for mattress insulation, powders
  • commercial products: roof and floor products, textured ceiling compounds, ceiling tiles, shingles, soundproofing materials, asbestos insulation materials, automobile brake pads and brake linings, automobile clutch facings and gaskets, millboard, pipeline wrap, chimney, furnace and broiler materials, paints and varnishes, textiles, wall coverings

Asbestos-Related Exposure Risk Factors

Long-term exposure to asbestos boosts the risk of diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, pleural and non-malignant lung disorders. This has been measured in workers that were exposed in various asbestos-containing work environments. In Libby, Montana, vermiculite miners and millers that were exposed to tremolite asbestos were shown to have an increased risk of asbestos-related disorders. Other research has also shown that in areas around the world where tremolite-asbestos whitewashes were used in homes, there were increased numbers of cases of lung cancer, mesothelioma and other non-malignant lung disorders.

There are a variety of factors that influence the asbestos effects an individual may experience such as the following:

  • the concentration of the asbestos fibers
  • the length of time that the exposure period lasted
  • the exposure frequency; daily, weekly, monthly?
  • the chemical makeup, shape and size of the asbestos fibers (long, short, thin, wide particles)
  • the type of asbestos fibers (tremolite asbestos, actinolite asbestos, and crocidolite asbestos, or chrysotile)
  • an individual’s personal history of tobacco use, or pre-existing lung disorders

Thin and long asbestos fibers tend to access the alveolar and lower airway regions of the lungs. This causes the fibers to be lodged into the lungs for a longer period. The longer fibers also tend to be more toxic than short, wide asbestos fibers.

Wide asbestos particles are usually lodged in the upper respiratory tract and may not reach the lungs or pleura, the critical regions for asbestos toxicity. Short fibers may be responsible for the origination and development of asbestos diseases.

Some amphibole fibers such as actinolite asbestos, crocidolite asbestos and tremolite asbestos are kept in the lower respiratory tract longer than chrysotile fibers (or those that may be similar in size and shape).

Why Asbestos is Dangerous – Possible Related Diseases

A considerable amount of exposure to asbestos-containing materials may boost the chances of health risks such as asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural disorders. Studies of workers that have experienced cumulative exposure to these materials have shown that it may result in disease.

Related diseases caused by asbestos exposure may take a long period of time before they develop. For example, some cases of asbestosis and lung cancer in workers may take 15, 30 or more years of exposure before they surface.

Most research has been focused on asbestos workers and their families in cases where long-term exposure to asbestos fibers has caused scaring of the lungs, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

No clear-cut research links asbestos-related disorders to incidental exposure of asbestos from home environments. Since asbestos-related health issues may not surface for decades until after exposure, it makes it difficult to analyze data from this segment of the population.

Concern about low-level exposure and its long-term effects is becoming more popular with researchers and physicians because in general, asbestos fibers attach to lung tissues permanently and over a long period of time, the buildup may cause health risks.

According to the EPA, there is no airborne asbestos exposure level that is considered safe.
The following are three primary diseases that are related to exposure from asbestos:

– asbestosis: This is a progressive, long-term disease of the lungs that is non-cancerous. This disease is caused from inhalation of asbestos fibers that cause scar tissue on the lungs. This scar tissue makes it difficult for oxygen to get into the blood. There is no real treatment for asbestosis. The symptoms of asbestosis include a dry crackling sound in the lungs during inhalation and shortness of breath.

– lung cancer: This disease causes the most deaths related to exposure of asbestos-containing materials. Workers that work in industries such and manufacturing of asbestos, milling, mining, or any workers that use asbestos-containing products in their work, have a greater chance of developing lung cancer than most other people in the general population. The symptoms of lung cancer from asbestos exposure include anemia, chest pains, hoarseness and shortness of breath.

– mesothelioma: This disease is a rare form of cancer that is located in the thin lining of the abdomen, chest, heart and lung. Mesothelioma may take many years of exposure to asbestos before it surfaces. The symptoms of mesothelioma from asbestos exposure include coughing, fluid in the abdomen, chest or lungs, pain in the abdomen or chest, and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.


Asbestos refers to a group of fibrous minerals that are naturally occurring in some products such as those found in some materials used in the manufacturing, building, automotive and other industries. Their heat-resistant and strength-building properties made them a primary choice for use in the manufacturing and building industries in the early to late 1900’s.

Strong and flexible asbestos fibers were woven together to form durable construction products. Asbestos was commonly used in building products for uses such as acoustic insulators, thermal insulators, fire proofing materials, and in roof and floor materials. As time went on, asbestos proved to cause harmful health risks to people that lived or worked in buildings constructed with asbestos-containing materials or that worked with asbestos-containing products.

Asbestos-containing fibers become dangerous when they are damaged or disturbed. When materials that contain asbestos are intact, they don’t normally pose a health threat; however, when they deteriorate and break up into small pieces that release small asbestos fibers into the air, they may pose health risks to the lungs from inhalation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) identify six asbestos materials that include: actinolite asbestos, amosite, anthophyllite asbestos, chrysotile, crocidolite and tremolite asbestos.

National Toxicology Program 11th Report on Carcinogens “Known to be human carcinogens”

Alcoholic beverage consumption
Analgesic mixtures containing phenacetin
Arsenic compounds, inorganic
Beryllium and beryllium compounds
1,4-Butanediol dimethylsulfonate (busulfan, Myleran®)
Cadmium and cadmium compounds
1-(2-Chloroethyl)-3-(4-methylcyclohexyl)-1-nitrosourea (MeCCNU)
bis(chloromethyl) ether and technical-grade chloromethyl methyl ether
Chromium hexavalent compounds
Coal tar pitches
Coal tars
Coke oven emissions
Cyclosporin A (Ciclosporin)
Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
Dyes metabolized to benzidine
Environmental tobacco smoke
Estrogens, steroidal
Ethylene oxide
Hepatitis B virus
Hepatitis C virus
Human papilloma viruses: some genital-mucosal types
Methoxsalen with ultraviolet A therapy (PUVA)
Mineral oils (untreated and mildly treated)
Mustard gas
Nickel compounds
Oral tobacco products
Silica, crystalline (respirable size)
Solar radiation
Strong inorganic acid mists containing sulfuric acid
Sunlamps or sunbeds, exposure to
2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD); “dioxin”
Thorium dioxide
Tobacco smoking
Vinyl chloride
Ultraviolet radiation, broad spectrum UV radiation
Wood dust
X-radiation and gamma radiation

International Agency for Research on Cancer “Probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A)

Agents and groups of agents




Androgenic (anabolic) steroids

Aristolochic acids (naturally occurring mixtures of)


Bischloroethyl nitrosourea (BCNU)



a-Chlorinated toluenes (benzal chloride, benzotrichloride, benzyl chloride) and benzoyl chloride (combined exposures)

1-(2-Chloroethyl)-3-cyclohexyl-1-nitrosourea (CCNU)




Clonorchis sinensis (infection with)




Diethyl sulfate

Dimethylcarbamoyl chloride


Dimethyl sulfate


Ethyl carbamate (urethane)

Ethylene dibromide




Indium phosphide

IQ (2-Amino-3-methylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoline)

Kaposi’s sarcoma herpesvirus/human herpesvirus 8

Lead compounds, inorganic


Methyl methanesulfonate



Nitrate or nitrite (ingested) under conditions that result in endogenous nitrosation

Nitrogen mustard




Procarbazine hydrochloride






Tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate

Ultraviolet radiation A

Ultraviolet radiation B

Ultraviolet radiation C

[Urethane: see Ethyl carbamate]

Vinyl bromide (Note: For practical purposes, vinyl bromide should be considered to act similarly to the human carcinogen vinyl chloride.)

Vinyl fluoride (Note: For practical purposes, vinyl fluoride should be considered to act similarly to the human carcinogen vinyl chloride.)



National Toxicology Program 11th Report on Carcinogens “Reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens”






Adriamycin® (doxorubicin hydrochloride)





2-Amino-3,4-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoline (MeIQ)

2-Amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline (MeIQx)

2-Amino-3-methylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoline (IQ)

2-Amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP)


o-Anisidine hydrochloride

Azacitidine (5-Azacytidine®, 5-AzaC)








2, 2-bis-(bromoethyl)-1,3-propanediol (technical grade)

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)

Carbon tetrachloride

Ceramic fibers (respirable size)


Chlorendic acid

Chlorinated paraffins (C12, 60% chlorine)


Bis (chloroethyl) nitrosourea





p-Chloro-o-toluidine and p-chloro-o-toluidine hydrochloride


C.I. basic red 9 monohydrochloride


Cobalt sulfate




Danthron (1,8-dihydroxyanthraquinone)

2,4-Diaminoanisole sulfate












1,2-Dibromoethane (ethylene dibromide)


Tris (2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate


3,3’-Dichlorobenzidine and 3,3’-dichlorobenzidine dihydrochloride

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)

1,2-Dichloroethane (ethylene dichloride)

Dichloromethane (methylene chloride)

1,3-Dichloropropene (technical grade)


Diesel exhaust particulates

Diethyl sulfate

Diglycidyl resorcinol ether




Dimethylcarbamoyl chloride


Dimethyl sulfate

Dimethylvinyl chloride




Disperse blue 1

Dyes metabolized to 3,3’-dimethoxybenzidine

Dyes metabolized to 3,3’-dimethylbenzidine


Ethylene thiourea

Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate

Ethyl methanesulfonate

Formaldehyde (gas)


Glasswool (respirable size)



Hexachlorocyclohexane isomoers



Hydrazine and hydrazine sulfate



Iron dextran complex


Kepone® (chlordecone)

Lead and lead compounds

Lindane and other hexachlorocyclohexane isomers

2-Methylaziridine (propylenimine)




4,4’-Methylenedianiline and 4,4’-methylenedianiline dihydrochloride


Methyl methanesulfonate



Michler’s ketone [4,4’-(dimethylamino) benzophenone]



Nickel (metallic)

Nitrilotriacetic acid




Nitrofen (2,4-dichlorophenyl-p-nitrophenyl ether)

Nitrogen mustard hydrochloride




















Ochratoxin A




Phenazopyridine hydrochloride


Phenoxybenzamine hydrochloride


Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs)

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Procarbazine hydrochloride


1,3-Propane sultone


Propylene oxide




Selenium sulfide




Tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene)






Toluene diisocyanate

o-Toluidine and o-toluidine hydrochloride





Ultraviolet A radiation

Ultraviolet B radiation

Ultraviolet C radiation


Vinyl bromide

4-Vinyl-1-cyclohexene diepoxide

Vinyl fluoride

Lung diseases from workplace exposure to materials

Exposure to workplace irritants can lead to a vast array of diseases. These diseases may last only as long as the exposure continues or may be chronic conditions that last a lifetime. Certain lung and respiratory illnesses that are caused by occupational exposure to chemicals, dangerous fibers or other substances can cause fatal diseases that currently have no known cure.

Many occupations hold greater risks for exposure due to the location, surrounding environment or nature of the required tasks. It was previously thought that only individuals such as coal miners were exposed to irritants that cause lung disease. This is no longer considered valid as individuals in other industries have been diagnosed with similar illnesses.

Several of the most well know lung diseases associated with occupational exposure are asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. These diseases were once very rare but have increased as the population of those who were exposed to asbestos on the job ages. Adult onset asthma is also on the rise and many researchers believe this is due to workplace irritants. Other lung and respiratory illnesses have increased in frequency due to the latency period of the disease.

The aging population that is now becoming ill from past workplace exposures is providing valuable information on other dangerous substances. The list below details some of the most common occupational lung and respiratory diseases found in the United States and worldwide:


Asbestosis is a chronic condition of the lung. This disease develops slowly and often causes suffers to experience shortness of breath and chest pain. Many individuals can no longer live an ordinary life as the tolerance for physical activity decreases. Asbestosis is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. These fibers, which lodge into the lining of the lungs cause scarring. This scar tissue prevents the lung from properly inflating causing difficulty breathing. When the exposure to asbestos ends the disease does not progress further. Not every person that is exposed to asbestos gets asbestosis. Researchers believe genetics may play a role. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis and the disease progresses slowly. The occurrence of this disease is difficult to ascertain however, the American Academy of Family Physicians sites 20,000 hospital discharges with this diagnosis in the year 2000.

Malignant Mesothelioma

Malignant Mesothelioma is a rare but fatal lung disease caused mainly by exposure to asbestos. This cancer occurs in the lining which surround the internal organs such as the heart and lungs. There are two main types of mesothelioma, pleural and peritoneal. Some of the symptoms of these diseases include shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling in the abdomen and/or unexplained weight loss. Mesothelioma has no known cure and as it progresses the symptoms become more painful. According to the American Cancer Society between 2,000 and 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States. There are many causes for lung cancer but on-the-job exposure to agents such as radon and asbestos may be to blame for many lung cancer occurrences. The symptoms associated with lung cancer are similar to those associated with other respiratory illnesses including shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain and chronic dry cough. Lung cancer has no known cure and 60 percent of patients with lung cancer die within one year of diagnosis. Individuals diagnosed in an early stage of the disease have the greatest chance of survival. The American Lung Association sites lung cancer as the leading occupational cancer.


According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. This disease describes a condition in which the airways of the lungs become obstructed, creating an inability to exhale properly. Individuals suffering from COPD experience a thickening of the walls of the airways and often the lungs lose elasticity. The increased production of mucus also causes clogging within the airways. The symptoms of COPD get worse as the disease progresses and include shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, increased production of mucus, persistent cough and frequent respiratory infections. The main cause of COPD and other lung illnesses is cigarette smoking but The National Institute of Health states that occupational irritants have also been known to cause COPD. The term COPD also refers to another serious lung disease called emphysema. Emphysema results in damaged air sacks, which causes difficulty breathing. There is no cure for COPD and the disease worsens over time sometimes making daily living difficult. According to the National Institute of Health over 12 million individuals in the U.S. are currently diagnosed with this disease.


Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis is another lung illness caused by occupational irritants, in this case, coal dust. This disease, also known as black lung disease, is a chronic lung condition in which sufferers experience shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in the chest and a persistent cough. The disease can be broken down into two forms: simple and complicated. Most cases begin as simple pneumoconiosis and only a few progress into the complicated form, also known as progressive massive fibrosis. This illness rarely becomes serious in the simple form and many individuals suffer no symptoms. In the complicated form the disease may suddenly worsen but rarely leads to disability or death. There is no known cure for the damage caused by long-term exposure to coal dust there are however, effective treatments to help control symptoms.


Silicosis is the most common occupational lung disease in the world. The air of mines, foundries and manufacturing facilities often contain free crystalline silica. This dust can cause a lung condition called silicosis, which is characterized by the inflammation and scarring of the tissue of the lungs. The symptoms of silicosis are shortness of breath, fever, loss of appetite and in advanced cases, cyanosis (or bluing of the skin). As with many occupational lung diseases, symptoms may not present until years after exposure. Individuals with silicosis are more susceptible to the disease tuberculosis. Researchers are not certain why this correlation exists. There is no known cure for silicosis but it is preventable by limiting exposure to silica dust.

Brown lung disease (byssinosis)

Brown lung disease or byssinosis is caused by the inhalation of dust formed during the processing of hemp, flax and cotton. This lung disease affects the textile workers exposed to this dust in textile factories. The symptoms associated with byssinosis are cough, tightness in the chest and wheezing. These symptoms usually dissipate by the end of the workweek or when exposure stops. Individuals who already suffer from asthma may find the exposure to textile dust increases or worsens their asthma symptoms. Those who suffer byssinosis should eliminate their exposure or they may suffer more severe lung damage or chronic lung disease.

Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is a form of asthma that is caused by exposure to irritants in the workplace. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that approximately 11 million people are exposed to any one of numerous agents that can cause this illness. Over 15 percent of disabling asthma cases are attributed to on-the-job exposure. Asthma is characterized by shortness of breath (sometimes severe), tightness in the chest, wheezing and coughing. This illness can become serious and in rare cases is fatal however if it is caught at an early stage asthma may be reversible.

Occupational Irritants

The CDC is currently monitoring the occurrence of occupational respiratory disease and occupational lung disease in an effort to identify their cause and increase prevention of both.

There are many different diseases that can be caused by occupational irritants or substances. These include diseases of the respiratory units, diseases of the lungs and diseases of the airways. The skin (including eyes and nose) and lungs (including the airways leading to them) are the first organs to be exposed to environmental irritants. These organs are most susceptible to deposition of airborne particles. The lungs receive air via the trachea (or windpipe). The airways, which conduct air, are covered in cells with tiny projectiles called cilia. Mingled among these cells are mucus producing cells. The mucus producing cells work to cover the cilia creating a fluid barrier. The cilia cells then work in an undulating pattern to move forward in the airway and clear any dangerous dust or particles from the body. This is the body’s defense system that works to decrease the amount of dangerous substances in the body. The nose can also work as a filter to eliminate dangerous particles from entering and lodging in soft body tissue. The tiny cilia hairs protect the internal nasal passageways by trapping and filtering unwanted substances. The cilia move rhythmically to rid the nose and respiratory tract of foreign particles by pushing them toward the nostrils or pharynx. The particles are then either blown out through the nose or flushed through the body’s waste system.

Airborne particles come in many forms. They can be released as dust, vapors, gases or mists. These different forms are treated differently within the body. Vapors and gases can cause deprivation of oxygen to bodily tissues. They can also cause severe irritation to the airways and lungs and damage surrounding tissues. Dusts are the solid particles that can be found in the air while mists are liquid droplets that have become airborne. When either of these types of particles come into contact with an airway they begin the process of deposition. Gravity, airstream changes, collision with other particles and the general size and shape of the particle itself will determine when and where the particle will become deposited within the airway or lung. Some are immediately lodged into soft tissue while fluids carry other particles to surrounding tissue. Some of these particles are flushed out of the body through the body’s waste system. Others are filtered by special “scavenger cells” that render particles harmless. The mucus produced by cells in the body cover small particles and allows them to be coughed out. However, sometimes the body cannot fight off the harmful particles and disease develops.