From wonder mineral of the ages to one of the worst banes of humanity. That, in a nutshell, is the story of asbestos. And the back story as well of one of the most controversial industries today, the asbestos removal industry.
The ancients considered asbestos magical and wove it into cloth. But it was during the Industrial Revolution that it began to be widely used for its heat- and chemical-resistant properties, mainly as insulation in turbines, boilers, kilns and ovens. It is also highly resistant to electricity. In the 20th century, there was even more widespread use of asbestos in buildings and homes, automobiles, and clothing. Asbestos products such as asbestos cement sheet walls and ceilings, and asbestos roof tiles were popular in home construction because they were believed to lessen the risks of fire. It has also been used in water and sewage systems. One of the heaviest users of asbestos was, in fact, the US military, especially the Navy, which used massive amounts in building warships and other vessels.
This was despite growing proof of the danger to health caused by asbestos exposure. Among the diseases linked to being exposed to asbestos are asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, a particular form of cancer directly caused by asbestos exposure, pleural plaques and pleural thickening.
Many large asbestos companies, in fact, continued to use it in construction and manufacturing well into the 1980s. They would hide their health hazard findings to get around the multi-million dollar lawsuits filed by victims of asbestos cancer. But as the evidence became cleared, government began banning the use of asbestos. Today, 60 countries have total or partial bans in place.
In the US, although the Environmental Protection Agency has no general ban on asbestos uses, it was one of the first pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act and its use in many applications prohibited by the Toxic Substances Control Act.
With so much asbestos in houses and buildings, the problem now became how to remove it safely. This gave birth to what is now the multi-billion dollar asbestos removal industry. Much of the asbestos used in buildings comes in what is called bonded form, meaning it is mixed in with a another material like cement that it is unlikely to be released in harmful levels unless disturbed or broken.
Friable asbestos on the other hand, can easily become a powder and be released in the air as dangerous crystals that can be inhaled. Its most common use was in fire retardants sprayed onto building and house walls.
Because asbestos removal is a dangerous business, all asbestos abatement and removal workers are considered professionals who need to undergo state-approved training and certification. They are strictly required to wear safety clothing and asbestos abatement equipment. DIY asbestos removal, while possible, is not advised.
However, the growing demand for asbestos abatement services has also fueled a debate about the extent of asbestos hazards or whether the asbestos removal industry is simply cashing in on popular fears. There are also concerns about unscrupulous asbestos abatement companies following the prosecution of contractors hiring undocumented workers to undertake illegal removal work, thus exposing people to potentially painful or fatal health hazards.
In the end, though, as the saying goes, better safe than sorry. With proper regulation and enforcement of laws, it is best to have an asbestos removal industry around to safely remove an environmental and health threat that has long been in our midst.