Asbestos is a natural fiber that has been banned in some products in the US due to its harmful health effects, including cancer.
How can we be exposed to asbestos?
Before the 1980s, asbestos was used in many building products including insulation in walls and around pipes, vinyl floor tiles, roofing, siding, and other materials. Although use has declined, asbestos is still permitted in some new products such as brake pads, roofing materials, and cement pipes. Asbestos can be released into the air during demolition, renovation, or maintenance. Fibers can be brought home on clothing by those in certain jobs, especially construction.
What is the main route of exposure?
The main route of exposure is through inhalation (breathing in) of the fibers. However, asbestos can also be ingested into the body or become lodged into the skin.
What are the risks following asbestos exposure?
The most common asbestos-related health conditions include diseases of the lung such as lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare form on cancer of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart lining), and asbestosis, a progressive, non-cancer disease of the lung. Use of talcum powder contaminated with asbestos has also been linked to increased risk of ovarian cancer. These diseases can sometimes develop decades after the exposure. However, the health risk of a small, brief exposure to asbestos is extremely low.
It is important that anyone exposed to asbestos avoid tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke multiplies the risk for lung cancer in a person also exposed to asbestos.
Preventing asbestos exposure
If you think your home has asbestos, have an asbestos-certified inspector evaluate and recommend next steps. If the asbestos is not exposed, the recommendation may be to leave it alone. If work is required, hire a licensed contractor to deal with the asbestos in a safe way.
Never let children play where asbestos is exposed or near renovation or demolition work.
Avoid use of powders and cosmetics that are talcum based due to the small risk of contamination with asbestos fibers.
Anyone who works with asbestos material (construction/demolition, firefighting, shipyard worker) should shower and change clothes and shoes before leaving the workplace to avoid bringing asbestos into their vehicle or home.
Schools are required to have asbestos management plans, and address asbestos under strict federal regulations (called AHERA). You can request to review your school’s asbestos plan.
How we’re studying asbestos at the Institute
The Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has a long history studying the impacts of asbestos on human health as well as evaluating and treating workers exposed to asbestos. In the 1960s, Irving J. Selikoff, MD, created the first hospital division in the nation of occupational medicine at Mount Sinai. His research on asbestos-related disease shaped public policy and, for working men and women around the world, changed their future for the better. His work helped lay the foundation for the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act and for Environmental Protection Agency limitations on the widespread use of asbestos.
Today, in addition to evaluating workers exposed to asbestos at the Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health, occupational health experts at the Centers provide health and safety education to employers and unions on preventing exposure.
The Selikoff Centers are also home to the WTC Health Program which provides medical monitoring and treatment to responders involved in the disaster and recovery work after September 11, 2001. When the towers fell, a cloud of dust that included asbestos and other toxic materials filled the air for many weeks following the attack. As asbestos-related conditions can take decades to appear, it is critical that responders continue to be monitored regularly.