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What is 'asbestos'?


Gary Ginsberg (Toxicologist) gives expert video advice on: What is 'asbestos'?; In which materials is asbestos typically found?; What are the health hazards associated with asbestos? and more...

What is 'asbestos'?

Asbestos is a natural mineral found in the earth, and it's found in certain kinds of rocks and soils. And when it's in the earth's crust, it's not a problem for people. The problem has become when we mine asbestos and then put it into consumer products and put it into the human environment.

In which materials is asbestos typically found?

If you had heat resistant gloves that may have had asbestos in it in the old days, insulation around hot water tanks and pipes that would carry hot water through a home that typically in the 1950's, 1960's that had pipe wrap that contained asbestos. So asbestos is a good heat resistant insulating material that had a lot of consumer uses and in fact asbestos was even used in brakes, in brake pads. So draw all of those places where it's in the human environment has led to some releases of asbestos that have led to the potential risks for cancer.

What are the health hazards associated with asbestos?

What we learned about asbestos, is that in the workplace where we've had experience with shipyard workers in particular, where they were putting asbestos in to boats as insulating material, around the boiler of the boat for example. They developed a high rate of lung cancer and it wasn't just any kind of lung cancer, it was a particular fingerprint kind of lung cancer for asbestos called mesothelioma. That signal from the workers led to sudden concern in the 1960's to 1970's that maybe we're doing the wrong thing with this mineral, maybe we're putting it into too many places were humans can break it down, interact with it, and breathe it in. The concern with asbestos is that, it can flake off of these kinds of insulating materials and form very thin fibres and we're talking about 1/20th to 1/100th the width of a hair strand. That's how thin they are, they're like javelins, they're like spears that can be inhaled and penetrate deep into the lungs and turn your deep lung into a pin cushion, so that's the image that we have from breathing in asbestos. The problem with asbestos fibres, this is different than fibreglass, you can also breath fibreglass fibres let's say you're working in your attic and you're tearing up some old insulation and putting it down. You will be breathing in some fibreglass fibres but those fibres, when they get into your deep lung, they are water soluble and they degrade, they don't stay there. Asbestos is a mineral from the earth and it doesn't degrade, it stays as a javelin in your deep lung or like a needle pricking and irritating your deep lung causing an inflammatory reaction that eventually leads to a real problem, lung cancer.

What affect does asbestos have on the lungs?

Lung cancer is different than a cancer from asbestos typically because lung cancer causes the bronchia's, broncogenic carcinoma - higher up in the respiratory tree - is where cigarette smoke and lung cancer comes from. Where as mesotheliomia is the distinct, classical but rare tumour caused by asbestos. Cigarette smoking doesn't cause mesotheliomia, radon doesn't cause mesotheliomia, and asbestos is one of the few things known to cause mesotheliomia. And that's because these javelins or needle like fibres penetrate through the lungs and actually into the cavity just beneath the lungs and damages the pleural sack that surrounds the lung creating a tumour that is in that surrounding media right around the lungs.

How does asbestos cause cancer in the home?

The evidence that we know that asbestos can cause human lung cancer is from the worker studies, or from the women who are laundering the clothing of their husbands who came home from the shipyards and they got puffs of asbestos off the clothing as they were handling it to throw it into the washing machine. They got lung cancer also, mesothelioma. However, cancer from pipe wrap or insulation around a boiler, or a furnace in your home, there is no evidence that that has led to lung cancer. So what we're telling people with pipe wrap, or insulation, around a furnace is to make sure it's in good shape, don't handle it or damage it in any way, you don't necessarily have to remove it from your home if it's in good shape. If it is deteriorating and flaking and creating a mess, that certainly is something you want to have cleaned up, it's certainly something you want to have removed by a professional who is going to seal off the area to make sure the fibers don't spread all over your basement and all over your home. Asbestos is something that you can track through your entire house. So even though we don't have a smoking gun from this source of asbestos in homes, cause we know it is a carcinogen, we know it can damage the deep lungs, you want to be careful with it and avoid exposure either by making sure it's intact and not flaking, some people will actually put other wrapping on top of it to sort of hold it in place, and also, if it is flaking and deteriorating you want to bring in a professional to remove it.

Should I try to remove the asbestos in my home?

Some people will pro-actively remove it, even if it is in good condition, because they don't want to have to worry about it if the pipe bursts. Suddenly you have a plumber come in, who doesn't know how to be careful with it, and he will rip the asbestos off the pipe and then spread it through the rest of the house because he's worried about the other emergency, that your hot water pipes are leaking.