Asbestos Still Lurks in Older Buildings: Are Your Lungs at Risk?

How to protect your family from exposure
Asbestos Still Lurks in Older Buildings: Are Your Lungs at Risk?

Even though asbestos was largely banned in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, the fibrous material — linked to various lung ailments — may still lurk in your home or office. It’s good idea to understand what can put you at risk.

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A group of minerals that occurs naturally in the environment, asbestos is resistant to heat, fire and chemicals. It was often used for insulation in houses and commercial buildings, as well as in brake pads and linings in vehicles.

Pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD, says it was also used in shipbuilding and construction to make cements and plastics stronger. “Before it was banned, asbestos could be found in ceilings, floors and paint because it was fireproof, he says. “It was sometimes even used in crayons.”

What are your risks?

If you live in an older house or work in an older building, asbestos is probably still in the floors, ceilings, pipes or insulation. It becomes a concern when the materials made of asbestos become damaged over time or if you disturb them. Damaged asbestos is a danger to your lungs because the damaged materials release tiny fibers into the air.

“The concern is regular exposure,” says Dr. Choi. “People who work in the construction, shipbuilding and mining industries are at risk. They can also bring asbestos home on their shoes, clothing or even in their hair. That can put their families at risk.”

People who work in these industries should do the following:

  • Use protective equipment provided by your employer while at work
  • Always shower immediately after work
  • Always remove and wash your clothes right way

Also, it’s a good idea to check what is in products you buy from other countries. Although there are restrictions on using asbestos in the U.S., that’s not the case everywhere. “If you’re getting products from another country, you may not know they contain asbestos,” Dr. Choi says.

RELATED: Is Your Bedding Disrupting Your Breathing?

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Health problems associated with asbestos

“Asbestos can cause a variety of health problems — from benign to very dangerous,” says Dr. Choi.

“Some of the more benign issues are plaque in the lining of the lungs and fluid around the lungs,” he says.

The most serious problems caused by asbestos are lung fibrosis, which is scarring of the lung tissues, lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer that forms in the thin lining that surrounds the lungs.

If you are a smoker or former smoker, that magnifies your risk for some asbestos-associated diseases, especially lung cancer.

RELATED: Don’t Smoke? You Could Still Get Lung Cancer

Warning signs of asbestos exposure

Symptoms associated with asbestos exposure include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chronic cough
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling in the face
  • Difficulty swallowing

“Asbestos-related diseases can take decades to show up, and whether or not you develop a disease depends on how long you were exposed and how intense that exposure was,” Dr. Choi says.

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If you have these symptoms or suspect asbestos exposure, talk to your doctor.

Safe exposure to asbestos is no exposure

Since asbestos is found in the environment, people are often exposed at lower levels. Indoors, however, avoid exposure completely, if possible.

“Although OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has regulations for safe exposure levels, there’s really no safe level for asbestos exposure,” Dr. Choi says.

Any building built before the 1970s could contain asbestos, especially old houses and offices from the first half of the last century. If you suspect that you may have asbestos in your home or office, it’s best to leave it alone if the area is in good condition. Just check regularly for signs of wear or damage.

But if you’re planning to remodel or would just like to know if you have asbestos for your own peace of mind, have your home or office inspected by an asbestos contractor. “Someone who specializes in asbestos can either cover it or have it removed,” says Dr. Choi.

RELATED: 17 Simple Ways to Prevent Air Pollution in Your Home

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