Asbestos Exposure in the Home
Federal agencies, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health and Human Services, agree that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a known carcinogen that has been linked to mesothelioma, a serious cancer caused by breathing in the asbestos fibers that then become lodged in the thin membrane that lines and encases the lungs. Often called “asbestos cancer,” the disease is highly aggressive and is resistant to many standard cancer treatments.
While most often individuals affected with the cancer were exposed to asbestos in the workplace, asbestos can also be found in the home. In fact, second-hand exposure to asbestos fibers has been identified when employees who worked around asbestos brought the fibers into the home on their clothing, shoes and in their hair. As a result, the children and spouses of those workers were exposed to the deadly toxin. Today, regulations are in place for worksites where asbestos is handled to prevent this kind of second-hand exposure.
It is still possible to be exposed to asbestos in your home because building materials that were used in many older homes often contained asbestos. Families can lower their exposure risk by being aware of common asbestos sources and avoiding contact with them.
Potential Sources of Asbestos in the Home
- Indoor Air. Homes built prior to the 1970s more than likely were built with some asbestos-containing materials. Insulation, ceiling tile, floor tiles, textured paint and patching compounds are all examples of products that were made with some level of asbestos. If any of these items in the home are damaged or are deteriorating and easily crumble, fibers can be released into the air, posing a health risk for the residents. Seek help from a trained professional to repair or remove the hazardous materials.
- Home Renovations. If your home does have asbestos-containing materials that are not damaged and have not been disturbed, your family should be safe from inhaling fibers. However, if you plan on renovating or remodeling your home you should not do the work yourself, and according to the EPA, “if in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos.” When asbestos is disturbed, microscopic fibers become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems. You should have your house tested for asbestos, and if asbestos is present, the repairs should be done by professionals since there is always a risk of exposure to fibers when asbestos is disturbed.
- Drinking Water. Some drinking water supplies in the United States have been found to contain unsafe levels of asbestos fibers. Municipalities or homes in which water passes through asbestos-containing cement pipes, or from filtering through asbestos-containing filters, may result in asbestos fibers in the water supply, which then enter the home Contact your local water supplier to request information regarding the safety of your drinking water.
- Garage Areas. Brakes, clutches and other car parts were once built with asbestos-containing products. There is no safe level of exposure, and individuals who work on their vehicles in their home garage may be at risk for inhaling asbestos fibers. You cannot tell whether brake or clutch components contain asbestos simply by looking at them, but some vehicles and parts may contain labels indicating whether those components contain asbestos. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that mechanics should assume that all brakes have asbestos-type shoes. For home mechanics, using a wet cloth to remove brake dust should be an effective method for preventing asbestos fibers from becoming airborne.
- Outside Environmental Hazards. Mining towns and areas near manufacturing plants have been found to have high concentrations of toxic materials, often putting the residents’ health at risk. If you live in areas where asbestos or ores are mined or processed, take extra precautions to keep soil and dust out of the house. Outside doormats can help keep the potentially contaminated soil from being tracked into the home.
- Pets. Locales that have high levels of asbestos in the soil could leave your family vulnerable to asbestos exposure from the fibers being tracked into your house by your pets, or from asbestos clinging to the pet’s fur. If you live in a high-risk area be sure to use a wet towel to wipe down your pet prior to allowing it in the house.
Mesothelioma is a very rare and aggressive cancer, and the only established cause of the disease is exposure to asbestos. Limiting and eliminating your contact with asbestos is important for ensuring that you and your family stay safe from the disease. Contact your local EPA office for further information.