Ask Eartha: Asbestos still a threat to human health |

Ask Eartha: Asbestos still a threat to human health

Eartha Steward
Special to the Free Press

Dear Eartha,

I’ve been reading about asbestos and how it’s linked to mesothelioma. Is asbestos still found in buildings and homes? How do I know if I have come across asbestos?

— Randy, Silverthorne

What a timely question. This week happens to be Asbestos Awareness Week. You are correct, asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, or the protective lining that covers many of the internal organs of the body. Mesothelioma occurs most often in the outer lining of the lungs or internal chest wall when asbestos fibers are inhaled over prolonged periods of time. Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can also cause other fatal illnesses such as malignant lung cancer and asbestosis, a type of pneumoconiosis.

Asbestos is still found in homes, schools and commercial/industrial buildings throughout the country and worldwide. Although asbestos use dates back more than 4,000 years, it became widely used toward the end of the 19th century for various applications in building materials, insulation, friction products, automotive brake and clutch repair work and even textiles. Even though no amount of exposure to asbestos is safe, it has not been banned in the U.S. and is still mined worldwide. Russia is the largest producer of asbestos, followed by China, Brazil, Kazakhstan and Canada.

So what is asbestos? It’s a long, thin fibrous crystal that is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. The most common form used is chrysotile and accounts for 95 percent of asbestos found in buildings in the U.S. It became popular for its desirable physical properties: sound absorption, resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, and tensile strength. Unfortunately, it is also extremely detrimental to human health when inhaled or ingested. The reason asbestos is so harmful is that the microscopic fibers easily become airborne when disturbed, lodge in your lungs and aggravate the tissue. This in turn causes scarring and even cellular damage leading to cancers such as mesothelioma. Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases are shortness of breath, wheezing, persistent cough that worsens over time, blood in coughed up fluid, pain or tightening of the chest, difficulty swallowing, decreased appetite, weight loss, fatigue, and anemia.


How do you know if the buildings in which you reside contains asbestos? You need to first determine when the building was constructed. Asbestos was popular in construction from 1920 until 1989 before the Environmental Protection Agency began regulating its use. So if your home or office was built before 1989, there is a chance it could contain asbestos. It was used in flooring, walls, textured paints, insulation, fireproofing materials, pipes and electrical wiring.

Because you cannot really know if something contains asbestos, it is best to look for materials that are degrading or falling apart in an older building. Asbestos is most dangerous when it becomes disturbed and airborne, so if you think something might contain asbestos, leave it alone and consider having it tested by a professional. You can find a list of state asbestos contacts on the EPA website:

If you are remodeling an older home and you are not sure if it contains asbestos, make sure you read the Building Renovation and Demolition guidelines set by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

You might also consider getting an energy audit on your home by an Xcel certified auditor; the audits are now only $100 for homes 2,500 square feet and under. An energy audit will not only identify inefficiencies in your home but will also look for potential indoor air-quality issues and other safety hazards. Although energy auditors are not trained to specifically deal with asbestos issues, they know what to look for and can tell you if they think you may have asbestos in your home.

As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We spend a lot of time indoors so it’s definitely worth a little precaution to make sure the air you’re breathing is free of any potential hazards.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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