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The PPM Blog

The Lingering Haze of Asbestos: A Legacy of Health Hazards in Older Communities

a close up of a womanContributed by Annie McIlwain P.E., Principal, PPM Consultants

Recently, I was discussing my work as an environmental engineer with a friend. I explained the ins and outs of environmental regulatory compliance, subsurface assessment and remediation, and then I got around to asbestos inspections and abatement. Right when I mentioned asbestos, my friend was surprised, “I thought asbestos didn’t exist anywhere anymore!” Oh, how wrong! It got me thinking though about how many may believe the same thing about asbestos. Contrary to many people’s belief, asbestos is still ubiquitous throughout our nation and the world – especially in older communities that are littered with brownfield sites (often abandoned sites with environmental issues/environmental stigma).

A Quick History of Asbestos

Asbestos, a mineral hailed for its fire-resistant properties, has a history that dates back millennia. Its discovery can be traced to ancient civilizations, where its unique fibrous structure was recognized for its durability and heat resistance. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that asbestos gained industrial prominence with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. In 1828, a Swedish scientist, Jons Jakob Berzelius, officially named the mineral “asbestos,” derived from the Greek word meaning “inextinguishable” or “indestructible.” This discovery marked the beginning of a transformative era, where asbestos became ubiquitous in various industries, including construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing.

By the mid-20th century, medical professionals began to observe a concerning trend of respiratory illnesses among asbestos-exposed workers. In 1924, the first case of asbestos-related disease, asbestosis—a progressive scarring of the lungs—was documented in medical literature. Subsequent research and epidemiological studies revealed a link between asbestos exposure and debilitating conditions such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer affecting the lining of the lungs and other organs. As awareness of the health hazards associated with asbestos exposure grew, regulatory agencies enacted stricter controls on its use, and legal battles ensued, leading to landmark litigation and compensation for affected individuals. The discovery of asbestos-related health issues underscored the urgent need for preventive measures and highlighted the lasting impact of industrial materials on public health.

Over the decades, awareness of asbestos’ dangers has led to its gradual phasing out from various industries and products. Many countries began regulating the use of asbestos in the mid-20th century, culminating in widespread bans and restrictions. The decline in its use and manufacturing was a significant step forward in protecting public health and preventing further harm. However, despite stringent regulations and efforts to mitigate its use, asbestos continues to pose a significant risk, particularly in older communities where its presence in building materials remains prevalent.

A Little Bit about Asbestos

The source of asbestos lies deep within the Earth’s crust, where it forms naturally as a fibrous silicate mineral. Asbestos deposits are found worldwide, with significant reserves located in regions such as Russia, China, Brazil, and Canada. The mineral exists in several forms, including chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite, each with its own unique properties and applications. Chrysotile, commonly known as white asbestos, comprises the majority of asbestos used globally due to its flexibility and heat resistance. Despite its natural abundance, the extraction and processing of asbestos pose significant health risks. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can lead to severe respiratory diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, highlighting the paradoxical nature of this seemingly beneficial mineral.

Friable and non-friable asbestos represent two distinct states of asbestos materials, each with varying risks and handling requirements, particularly during demolition and renovation projects. Friable asbestos refers to materials containing asbestos that can be easily crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure when dry, posing a significant risk of fiber release into the air. Examples include asbestos insulation, sprayed coatings, and certain types of ceiling tiles. Non-friable asbestos, on the other hand, consists of materials where asbestos fibers are bound within a matrix, such as cement, vinyl floor tiles, or asphalt. These materials are less likely to release fibers unless subjected to significant abrasion or damage. During demolition and renovation activities, the distinction between friable and non-friable asbestos is crucial. Proper precautions must be taken to prevent the release of asbestos fibers into the air, especially when dealing with friable materials.

Asbestos is all Gone Now, Right?

Despite regulatory actions and the decline in production, the legacy of asbestos persists, especially in buildings constructed before its dangers were fully understood. Older homes, schools, and commercial buildings may contain asbestos in various forms, including insulation, roofing materials, flooring, and even decorative finishes. As these structures age and undergo renovations or demolition, there’s a risk of asbestos fibers being released into the air, endangering the health of occupants and workers.

So What Do We Need to Do?

Addressing the ongoing threat of asbestos requires a multifaceted approach. Education and awareness campaigns are crucial for informing the public, building owners, and construction professionals about the risks associated with asbestos exposure. Strict regulations and enforcement are necessary to ensure proper handling, removal, and disposal of asbestos-containing materials during renovation or demolition projects.

Furthermore, efforts to develop safer alternatives and innovative technologies for asbestos remediation are essential for tackling existing contamination. However, the sheer scale of the problem, coupled with the cost and complexity of asbestos abatement, presents a formidable challenge for many communities, particularly those with limited resources.

What about my Property?

Fortunately, there are some mechanisms to assist in the funding of asbestos inspections and even abatement. Grants like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Community-Wide Brownfield Assessment Grants can provide a property owner with an asbestos survey on to determine if asbestos exists in building materials. Grants like EPA’s Brownfield Cleanup Grants can provide funding to abate asbestos in building materials. There are also state-specific funding sources and incentives that can aid in asbestos abatement.

If you are planning on demolishing or renovating a building, it is imperative that an asbestos survey be performed in order to protect the health and safety of workers and to comply with state and federal law. If you need help determining the presence of asbestos, abating asbestos, and/or finding funding sources to aid in your demolition/renovation plans, please reach out to me at We have a wide range of experience in identifying and remediating asbestos for the health and safety of workers and to help make redevelopment a reality for your community.

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