Asbestos Exposure Risks: Where Is Asbestos Found?

Despite clear health risks, asbestos can still be found in some buildings and consumer products.

Updated By , J.D.

Once billed as something of a wonder product, asbestos has been associated with serious health problems (including mesothelioma) for decades. But asbestos can still be found in buildings, and in recent years potentially harmful levels of asbestos have been detected in products like baby powder. In this article, we'll discuss:

  • asbestos in buildings
  • asbestos in consumer products
  • how to protect your family from asbestos exposure, and
  • first steps to take if you think an illness might be attributable to asbestos exposure.

When Was Asbestos Used?

"Asbestos" is the common name for six different fibrous minerals that occur naturally in the environment, and these minerals have been put to various commercial uses for centuries. Use of asbestos is highly restricted in the U.S., but there is no outright ban on its use, despite clear links to serious illness like mesothelioma. So, it might make sense to focus on where asbestos might still be found.

Where Can Asbestos Be Found in Buildings?

Due to its durability and resistance to heat and flame, asbestos was used in the construction of homes, schools, and other buildings for decades. Specifically, asbestos may still be found in:

  • insulation
  • ceilings
  • soundproofing
  • roofing
  • textured paint
  • vinyl tiles
  • oil and coal furnaces
  • hot water and steam pipes
  • woodburning stoves, and
  • decorative materials.

What About Asbestos in Consumer Products?

Certain products have traditionally included asbestos because of the material's resistance to fire and heat, and its durability. These include:

  • stove mats
  • stove door gaskets
  • clothes iron rest pads
  • furnace duct connectors
  • laboratory gloves and pads
  • asbestos paper and millboard, and
  • asbestos-cement sheet.

Other products that may or may not contain asbestos include:

  • paint
  • adhesives, caulking, and spackling material
  • tiles (ceiling and floor)
  • older appliances (coffee pots, toasters)
  • older clothes irons and ironing pads
  • vermiculite in garden soil
  • crayons that contain talc
  • older handheld hair dryers
  • older electric blankets
  • chalkboards, and
  • automotive parts (brakes and clutches).

In recent years, samples of certain talc-based cosmetic products have shown measurable levels of asbestos. This is likely because these two naturally-occurring substances are often found in close proximity, so mined talc can become contaminated with asbestos. In turn, thousands of lawsuits have alleged a link between talc products like Johnson's Baby Powder and illnesses like ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. More on these lawsuits below.

Asbestos in Products: Protecting Your Family

Consumer advocacy groups have raised concerns over the possible presence of asbestos in a number of the products listed above. But remember, not all of these products will definitely contain asbestos, and even if they do, the asbestos may be at very low (and legally permissible) levels so that the risk of developing an asbestos-related illness like mesothelioma or asbestosis are minimal or non-existent.

For some of the older products listed in the section above, non-asbestos substitutes are widely available. So if you've got any of these products around the house—like older appliances, hair dryers, and ironing board pads—it may be time to replace them with new versions that don't contain asbestos.

Asbestos Exposure in Buildings: Minimize the Risk

What steps can homeowners take if they're concerned about the presence of asbestos in their home? And what are school districts required to do when it comes to inspecting for—and in some cases removing—asbestos materials in school buildings?

Asbestos In Homes

The most important thing to remember about asbestos in your home is that its mere presence does not usually pose a health risk. But if asbestos-containing material (like tiles or insulation, for example) become damaged or worn, you need to take action.

Fixing an asbestos problem usually means either covering or sealing the asbestos material. Use of a sealant can either bind the asbestos fibers together or coat them with a material that will prevent their release. Insulation (around pipes or heating units) can often be repaired this way. Covering means enclosing the asbestos material to prevent any fibers from being released. One example of covering/enclosing is wrapping asbestos-insulated piping with a protective jacket.

Removing an asbestos problem is the more expensive solution, and typically presents the biggest risk of actually causing the release of asbestos fibers. So, removal should probably be your last option, unless:

  • removal is required under your local or state laws
  • you're making major changes to your home that could result in the disturbance of asbestos material, or
  • the asbestos material is too damaged to be safely repaired.

There are professional companies that are expert at assessing the health dangers of asbestos in the home—including testing unlabeled materials to see if they contain asbestos, since it isn't always easy to tell. These companies can recommend a course of action for fixing asbestos-related problems and reducing health risks.

Remember, since the real danger comes when asbestos material is damaged or disturbed—so that asbestos fibers are released into the air—if you're planning a remodel of your home such as replacing a ceiling or tearing up floors, it's a good idea to have an experienced professional inspect your home for asbestos before any work gets started.

Asbestos In Schools

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires school districts to inspect all classrooms and other school buildings for the presence of asbestos. Schools also must fix most instances where asbestos-containing material (a ceiling, for example) is damaged, worn, or otherwise posing a potential health problem. But that doesn't mean that school districts are required to remove asbestos from school buildings (they're not). EPA's asbestos program for schools is focused on managing and remedying asbestos-containing materials "in-place," meaning encasement of potentially dangerous asbestos in most cases and removal only in rare instances.

Of course, homes and schools aren't the only settings where asbestos might be found. Learn more about workplace exposure to asbestos.

Do You Have an Asbestos-Mesothelioma Case?

If you're thinking about filing a lawsuit over the presence of asbestos in a home or school (or over resulting health problems), you may want to talk with an attorney who has experience handling asbestos and mesothelioma cases. Remember that most asbestos-related lawsuits are handled on a contingency fee basis, meaning that you don't pay for anything—including the initial consultation—and your attorney takes a percentage (typically 25% to 40%) of any compensation you receive. Get tips on finding and hiring the right asbestos lawyer for you and your case.

Sources: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), American Lung Association.

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