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Asbestos: Balancing Benefits and Risks

benefits and risks of asbestos

Imagine a material that's highly versatile. It can resist fire's fierce embrace, insulate against the biting cold, and even reinforce the structures that protect us. Such was the promise of asbestos for a long time. Its fibre strength and all-around benefits have made it used for various products. However, beneath this seemingly harmless material surface lies a silent and insidious danger. Asbestos has been a subject of controversy for decades. Its associated health risks have led to significant debate and regulation, ultimately leading to strict regulations.

health risks of asbestos
Asbestos can pose great threats to your health

Health Implications of Asbestos Health risks associated with asbestos exposure have been documented for more than a century. Breathing in tiny asbestos particles can give you lung problems like asbestosis, or even cancer like lung cancer and mesothelioma. It takes many years, sometimes decades, for these diseases to show up after being around asbestos, which makes them hard to find and treat.

When Does Asbestos Become Dangerous? Every kind of asbestos fiber poses a risk if you breathe it in. Some people argue that certain types of asbestos fibers might be less harmful, but this viewpoint isn't widely accepted among experts, including doctors and scientists. Therefore, until we have clear evidence that asbestos is safe, it's crucial to treat all asbestos as hazardous. Detecting asbestos in the air and recognizing its impact on your lungs isn't straightforward. Asbestos won't cause you to cough, sneeze, or make your skin and throat itch. These tiny fibers become airborne when asbestos-containing materials are damaged, disturbed, or improperly removed. When asbestos is crushed, it doesn't produce typical dust particles. Instead, it breaks down into minuscule fibers that are invisible, cannot be felt, and have no discernible taste. Experts measure asbestos fibres when they're in the air, using units called fibres per cubic centimetre of air (f/cc). To give you an idea, a cubic centimetre is roughly the size of a sugar cube. Monitoring the air for asbestos fibers involves collecting air samples through specific methods. In Minnesota, a "clean air" threshold of 0.01 f/cc has been established by the Department of Health as a safety standard.

how much of asbestos becomes dangerous

How Much is Dangerous? Any quantity of asbestos is regarded as unsafe. Items containing more than 1 percent asbestos minerals are classified as asbestos-containing products. The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease increases with higher levels of asbestos exposure. Diseases like asbestosis and lung cancer are directly linked to the amount of asbestos encountered. In medical terms, they are considered dose-related illnesses, meaning that the greater the amount of asbestos you breathe in, the higher the likelihood of falling ill.

Regulations of Asbestos In Canada Asbestos usage is permitted, but it is subject to rigorous oversight governed by the Asbestos Products Regulations (SOR/2007-260), which fall under the purview of the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act.

When it comes to using asbestos in construction, it is handled exclusively by qualified professionals to ensure that there is no risk to the health of the occupants of the building. Asbestos used in construction is handled by qualified personnel and may only be installed in a controlled manner, which does not pose any threat to the health of building occupants. Starting from April 1, 2016, the use of asbestos has been completely prohibited in all new construction and major renovation projects overseen by Public Services and Procurement Canada. In the US The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have a complete ban on asbestos use. Nonetheless, asbestos was among the initial dangerous air pollutants controlled under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act in 1970, and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has prohibited numerous uses of asbestos.

Dangerous jobs with high exposure to asbestos
Occupations with High Risks of Exposure to Asbestos

Asbestos Manufacturing High-Risk Occupations The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry from the US examined exposure during the years from 1940 to 1979. Their records indicated that approximately 27 million workers came into contact with airborne asbestos products during that time frame. Presently, around 1.3 million workers (in the US only) in construction and industry continue to face potential exposure risks. Occupations that have historically high risk of exposure to asbestos include:

  • Mining

  • Automotive Repair

  • Construction

  • Manufacturing

  • Building Materials and Equipment Maintenance

  • Shipbuilding

  • Renovation and Demolition

  • Electricity Generation

  • Firefighting

  • Military Service

Identifying Asbestos Hazards in the Workplace If you're involved in maintenance or construction work within buildings constructed before 1990, it's important to be aware that many of the materials used in these structures may contain asbestos. For everyone's safety, it is highly advised that owners of public and commercial buildings maintain a detailed inventory of asbestos-containing materials and share this information with anyone who requests it. Before starting any work in areas that may contain asbestos-containing materials, it is highly recommended to seek guidance from a qualified asbestos removal specialist for proper testing.

How to protect yourself from asbestos

Asbestos exposure can occur during renovation or demolition activities when small asbestos fibres are released into the air. This can happen when:

  • You disturb or remove insulation, including that around hot water pipes and tanks.

  • You remove or disturb roofing materials like shingles, felt, or siding.

  • You engage in tasks like sanding, breaking, or scraping vinyl asbestos floor tiles.

  • You disturb soundproofing ceiling tiles.

  • You sand or disturb plaster, including acoustical plaster.

  • You perform tasks like sawing, drilling, or smoothing rough edges of materials.

  • You sand or scrape older surface treatments, such as roofing compounds (like tar paper), spackling, sealants, paint, putty, caulking, or drywall.

  • You replace specific car parts like brakes or transmission clutches. It's essential to check with your parts supplier to confirm if any replacement parts contain asbestos.

  • Any damage to materials containing asbestos should be reported promptly to the relevant authority, such as your occupational health and safety professional.

If asbestos is discovered during workplace renovations, you must stop work immediately. The area should be sealed off, and the services of a qualified asbestos removal specialist should be engaged to safely dispose of the asbestos-containing materials.

professional handling of asbestos hazardous materials

Professional Handling of Asbestos Professional handling of asbestos is imperative for safeguarding human health and the environment. From identification, assessment, risk management, and abatement to proper disposal, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) must be handled by professionals who have experience and knowledge about strict regulations. ARSGEM boasts a tried-and-true method for the identification, control, and elimination of potentially dangerous materials within a given environment, all while vigilantly upholding rigorous safety protocols. This strategy encompasses the highly systematic and efficient elimination or treatment of harmful substances, such as asbestos.

Leveraging our collaborations with industry professionals, ARSGEM collaborates with subject matter experts to ensure to provide the best services for our clients. From coordinating complex transportation to precise documenting in the chain of responsibility, your safety and well-being is our utmost priority.

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