We’ve all read about the dangers of asbestos and seen the adverts offering legal assistance to receive compensation if your health has been affected as a result of exposure. However, you probably thought that as long as you didn’t work within the construction industry you were safe. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. In towns across America we’re all exposed to asbestos when we go about our daily lives. You might come into contact with the dangerous fibers when you visit the library, your daughter who works in a hospital might also be at risk, as may your grandson at his elementary school. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a ban on the use of most asbestos-containing products in 1989, we will undoubtedly all use public buildings that predate this time and which will have materials containing asbestos in their structure; even the slightest disturbance can release asbestos fibers and have devastating effects.
The consequences of asbestos exposure
Exposure to asbestos fibers carries two main risks. The first is a condition called asbestosis, where inhalation of the fibers cause inflammation of lung tissue, leading to shortness of breath and a cough; at present there is no cure and medications can only be given to manage symptoms. The other is mesothelioma, a rare cancer that develops when asbestos fibers trigger changes in the cells that line the organs and is found most commonly in the lungs; again there is no cure. Asbestos fibers can also be a contributing factor to standard lung cancer.
Pupils and teachers placed at risk
The EPA believes that apart from those recently built, many of the United States’ schools contain asbestos, placing 55 million children and 7 million teachers and support staff at risk of asbestos exposure and its related diseases. Around half of US schools were constructed between 1950 and 1969, the time when asbestos was used most commonly in buildings. A study in 1980 estimated that over a 30 year period asbestos exposure in schools would result in 1000 premature deaths; indeed a piece of research by the National Center for Health Statistics identified elementary school teachers as a high risk occupation with regards to mesothelioma, with 2.1% of these teachers dying from this form of cancer owing to their asbestos exposure on a daily basis. To minimize risks to pupils and staff the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Act requires schools to check for the presence of building materials that contain asbestos and take steps to reduce associated hazards. However, they don’t require schools to remove the asbestos-containing material unless it is seriously damaged or will be disturbed during improvements to the school.
Asbestos exposure in hospitals
It seems ironic that hospitals where people go to recover from illnesses could be exposing their staff and long stay patients to potentially lethal asbestos fibers. However, any hospital constructed prior to 1990 and especially those built during the peak years of asbestos use (which is the case in many of our towns), are a potential source of danger. A study published in the West Indian Medical Journal in 2010 found that in the majority of hospitals surveyed there, most contained friable asbestos – the type that releases its fibers most easily – though at the time of the sample no asbestos fibers were detected in the air; this does no however mean that staff and patients haven’t been exposed previously. While similar steps are taken in hospitals as in schools to safeguard those working and present there from asbestos exposure, this doesn’t remove the risks entirely.
While figures suggest that rates of asbestos-related diseases have reached their peak and are now set to decline, with our continued exposure in many public buildings and often a 30 or 40 year incubation period for the likes of mesothelioma to develop, can we really be so sure?
Judy writes consumer interest stories for a number of local news sources in the US.