Many construction projects today involve updating existing buildings and homes, or demolition to make room for new infrastructure. Unfortunately, from the 1920s to 1980s, many homes and buildings were built with materials that may cause severe health consequences down the line. Asbestos is one of the numerous carcinogens incorporated into building materials of these older structures. Despite its decline in use, asbestos continues to create problems for people in the construction field. Oftentimes, the lack of knowledge available when it comes to the proper removal and disposal of asbestos leaves those unaware of the dangers susceptible to accidentally exposing themselves to this hazard.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found across the United States. Once coined as a “miracle mineral,” it has been known for its superior fire resistance and sound absorbing properties. This made it a no brainer to include it in building materials such as insulation and roofing shingles, as, in the event of a fire, the asbestos would slow the burning process, allowing more time for residents to evacuate.
Unfortunately, when materials that contain asbestos begin to degrade, the asbestos can start to become brittle, creating a hazard. These brittle attributes are associated with friable asbestos, a type of asbestos that was used in the materials of older buildings, such as insulation. Non-friable asbestos is slightly less dangerous, as this type is integrated into the building material and is more resistant to abrasion and damage. Non-friable asbestos was incorporated into materials such as cement sheets and vinyl floor tiles.
When asbestos is damaged, its fibers may become airborne, which can be detrimental to human health. These fibers are invisible to the naked eye and may be inhaled or ingested, embedding themselves into your internal organs. Over the course of 10 to 50 years, the fibers inflame surrounding organ tissue, leading to the possible development of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that is typically diagnosed in the lining of the lungs, but it can also affect the lining of the stomach and the heart. Due to the aggressive nature of this cancer, it has a very poor prognosis, with most patients living less than a year after being diagnosed.
Removing Asbestos-containing Materials (ACMs)
Depending on the type of construction project, you may have to repair existing asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), or abate them altogether. While the typical route is to remove the ACMs completely, this can be very costly and also dangerous if performed incorrectly. Repairing ACMs usually involves sealing and encapsulating the materials that contain asbestos, as to avoid future damage to the materials. The issue is that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure and the existing materials still pose a threat, even when patched up.
If it is decided that the ACMs will be removed, there are regulations and safety measures that should be recognized in order to limit exposure. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) contain best practices to specify the proper protocol for asbestos handling during demolitions and renovations of any structures. The regulations require the owner of the structure to notify the correct state agency before removal. Also, the removal process cannot create visible emissions into the outside air, or you must follow up with air cleaning procedures.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides a list of standards that protect workers from exposure as well. This fact sheet contains several recommendations when handling asbestos, including removing the materials, which should be done by EPA-certified abatement professionals, and it is recommended to wet the ACMs to limit fibers from becoming airborne. The work area should be monitored, as there are permissible exposure limits (PEL) of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter not be exceeded in order to keep personnel safe. Also, workers should be wearing proper protective equipment such as a respirator and disposable clothing.
Disposing of Asbestos-containing Materials
Once the ACMs have been removed, they must be double bagged in 6-millimeter plastic bags and sealed in a leak-tight container with a lid and proper labeling. The materials must be disposed of in landfills designated to handle asbestos waste. There should also be a decontamination zone for those involved in the abatement process, where they can remove contaminated clothing and bag tools that were used.
It is important that all materials are sealed and disposed of properly. Unfortunately, there have been cases of improper disposal regarding contractors that have dumped asbestos waste on land that is prohibited from these kinds of dangerous materials. When ACMs are improperly disposed of, there is a risk that the materials can cause fibers to become airborne, affecting the surrounding environments and humans if in close proximity. Not only is this illegal, but there are hefty fines that come with illegal dumping, which can easily be avoided if the proper team is performing the abatement work.
As with any construction job, it’s important to stay safe. Asbestos is an extremely dangerous carcinogen that many people do not know the risks of. If you are on a jobsite where asbestos is being handled or removed, please assure that you and fellow workers are following the proper protocol and protecting yourself at all times. Safely disposing ACMs helps create a safer environment for both present and future generations.