Occupational, Environmental, and Secondhand Exposure: Avenues of Asbestos

When people hear the word asbestos, they immediately associate it with risks they have heard on TV and over the radio: mesothelioma, lung, ovarian,and laryngeal cancer, as well as life threatening inflammation. Although people are familiar with the risks associated with this silicate material, how people become exposed to this harmful substance is often less understood. Exposure to harmful asbestos can either happen directly or indirectly, but both pose a tremendous risk to the health of a person. Direct exposure involves a person coming into contact with the harmful chemical such as an occupational or environmental exposure, whereas indirect exposure involves another person bringing in the harmful chemical “secondhand” and exposing others. It is important to learn about the avenues of exposure in order to be ensure that you or a loved one is not at risk.

The most common type of direct exposure to asbestos is at the workplace. According to the World Health Organization, over 100,000 individuals died in 2004 due to asbestos exposure at work. Asbestos is found in rocks and soils. The mineral fibers within this compound are flexible, and they are resistant to electricity and heat. Because of this, the material was used for years until its hazardous impact on human health was elucidated. Older constructions continue to have asbestos throughout the buildings including in the insulation, shingles, siding, and heat resistant fabrics. Demolition crews are often exposed to asbestos, and, without proper equipment and protocols, either inhale the harmful substance, ingest microscopic particles, or absorb some through the skin. Either avenue can cause catastrophic bodily harm. One less obvious direct avenue of exposure can be at school. Parents often think that schools are safe places for children, but because many schools were built before the effects of asbestos were understood, there continue to be thousands of institutions which have this harmful compound. Many older buildings regularly check asbestos levels, but the safe removal and clean up can often be laborious, dangerous, and time consuming. Being in an area where there is a fire or some type of explosion can also expose you directly to airborne asbestos. Last year, a steam pipe wrapped in asbestos erupted in New York City, pumping millions of particles of asbestos into the air. Recognizing the public health emergency, 49 buildings were evacuated, thousands of people were rushed from the scene, and streets were closed down. Even if you neighbor is renovating their home, and they do not get asbestos testing, ripping through insulation can emit the harmful chemical into the air. The same is true for any sort of project you may be conducting within your own home. Testing for asbestos prior to demolition is imperative in order to ensure that there is no risk of exposure within your own home.  

Environmental asbestos exposure is the result of either naturally occurring asbestos exposure or a result of environmental pollution. Communities centered around asbestos mining operations often have higher rates of cancers and mesothelioma as a result of the harmful pollutant. Additionally, companies and organizations involved in the processing, packaging, or shipping of asbestos products can expose nearby communities to high levels of asbestos. In order to combat this exposure, social justice groups should coordinate with community members to fight against the burden of these environmental externalities. 

Indirect, or secondary exposure to asbestos, can transform a home into a dangerous environment. Often times, workers who are exposed to asbestos can bring harmful chemicals into the home because the compound gets into their clothing or shoes. Trace amounts of the dangerous compound can even be found in hair and on the skin. There are hundreds of cases where wives or children have gotten mesothelioma due to carry in exposure by someone who was directly exposed. Pregnant women need to be especially careful because asbestos exposure of any kind can lead to traumatic indirect effects on the baby. For instance, if a woman’s lungs become compromised due to airborne asbestos, this could disrupt the delivery of oxygen to the fetus. 

Whether occupational, environmental, or indirect exposure to asbestos, the health implications of this exposure are too often life threatening. With no cure to combat the effects of asbestos exposure, precautionary prevention is the best way to minimize risk exposure to asbestos. Individuals who work with asbestos should be sure to wear proper safety equipment and to shower and change before returning home to minimize the risk of carrying in asbestos. Communities which are disproportionately impacted by environmental asbestos mining or processing should organize campaigns and fight for the health of their members by demanding more stringent safety protocols to ensure that high levels of asbestos are not going into the air. Finally, individuals who could potentially be exposed to indirect asbestos should be cognizant of the risks and encourage those who are in direct contact to thoroughly remove the hazard prior to returning home. Regular asbestos testing can help families have a better understanding of their potential risks. In 2016, the EPA named asbestos one of the top ten most dangerous chemicals to humans. By understanding both common and unexpected avenues of exposure, individuals are better able to avoid and protect themselves from mesothelioma and countless cases of cancer. 

Author: Alexandra Baczynski

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