According to the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center (MAAC), asbestos is the leading cause of occupational cancer. Exposure to asbestos in manufacturing or assembly industries has been linked to long-term health problems — symptoms of lung disease and cancer don’t appear until decades after exposure.
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For most people who have little exposure in their lifetime, asbestos is not a primary cause of health problems. However, asbestos is present in our homes, and long-term exposure to it as airborne particles can cause health problems, such as asbestosis, asbestos warts, lung cancer, pleural effusion, pleural plaque, pneumothorax, and even a rare disease known as mesothelioma. The good news is there are ways to reduce the risk of exposure to asbestos as well as other particulate matter in the air.
Through Historical Preservation Grants, rehabilitation of landmarks containing asbestos and other serious health threats can be funded for historical homes, libraries, museums, film, art, cultural and religious assets.
What is asbestos and why do we care?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that separates into very fine, extremely durable fibers that are not affected by heat or chemicals. In addition, asbestos does not conduct electricity. These qualities make it an excellent addition to products that have to meet fire safety and electrical safety standards or requirements.
In most household applications, asbestos is combined with other materials to create a stable and bonded surface. Asbestos is used in thousands of different products, and can be found inside your home as a component of:
- Pipe and duct insulation
- Floor tiles
- Electrical wires
- Textured paints
When asbestos fibers stay in place, they pose no health risk. However, when a material or product that contains asbestos ages and deteriorates, the fibers can become airborne. A common example of a deteriorating material is the crumbly pipe insulation often found in older houses. Other ways that asbestos fibers can become airborne is when floor tiles or painted surfaces are sanded during a renovation project
What’s so important about airborne asbestos?
Asbestos must enter the body to be harmful. Usually, this happens when you breathe in the tiny, broken pieces of asbestos fiber that have come loose when a product or material that contains asbestos has been cut, ripped, damaged, or disturbed.
Being mindful of the fact that older homes, especially those built before the 1980s, are likely to have more building products and finishes that contain asbestos than more recently built houses, what can you do to minimize possible exposure to asbestos?
If you are concerned that a material in your home contains asbestos, there are a few measures you can take to minimize the risk of airborne pollutants. If the material is in good shape, leave it alone and minimize any activities in the area where the material is present.
If you are unsure about the condition of the material, have it inspected and repaired — usually sealed, covered, or encapsulated — by a qualified person. Asbestos removal is usually a last resort. Regardless, do not try to do the work yourself, always hire a trained professional to safely handle materials to avoid exposure to the fibers. This is a job that should never, ever be put on the D-I-Y list!
Reducing the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos can have additional health benefits.
One way to guard against possible airborne asbestos is to install a properly-sized, whole-home ventilation system. Older homes have two conditions that lead to high levels of airborne pollutants: the building "envelope" allows dust and pollen and other contaminants in through air leakage, and there’s not enough controlled mechanical ventilation to clear the indoor air. In situations like this, tightening up the building envelope and installing a controlled ventilation system will lead to a cleaner indoor environment.
A ventilation system that exchanges stale polluted air for fresh and filtered air will keep your household healthy. For those who already have respiratory illness, fresh and filtered air can improve their quality of life by eliminating the majority of pollutant ‘triggers’.
An air filtration system guards against all sorts of common airborne particulate matter, whether its source is asbestos fibers crumbling off pipe insulation in the basement, dust, or heavy seasonal pollen counts outside.
Filters are rated by a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) Rating. The higher the MERV rating, the fewer dust particles and other contaminants can pass through it. On Zehnder HRVs, for example, a standard filter (MERV 7 to 8) removes pet dander, pollen, dust mites and droppings, auto emission particles, and lead dust. The optional finer filter (MERV 13) removes even smaller particles. Additional filter casings can be added to the system for larger capacity with ratings up to MERV 15. These filter casings can also be fitted with Activated Carbon filters. The filters are easy to remove from the unit to either safely clean or replace.
Be mindful of the air you breathe! Fresh filtered air promotes a healthy indoor environment, while adequate ventilation promotes cleaner indoor air. To learn more about how to prevent airborne asbestos exposure, visit the MAA Center blog, website and Facebook page.
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