The dangers of asbestos in the office: What to look out for

Asbestos and other harmful hazardous materials are often not thought about in work environments besides by those who are hands-on in occupational areas like construction, welding, or even firefighting. However, hazardous materials do exist across a variety of workplaces.

Asbestos, due to its durable properties and anti-flammable characteristics, has historically been used in a plethora of building materials. This includes things such as insulation, some forms of linoleum, ceiling tiles, window caulking material, exterior siding, and so on. In the 1970s, asbestos use declined when the U.S. EPA set heavy restrictions on the material. It was discovered that asbestos exposure leads to serious lung diseases such as mesothelioma, a cancer, which typically surfaces many years after exposure to the toxin. Even though specific occupations are at a higher risk, due to working with the substance on a regular basis, those who work or live in buildings and homes containing asbestos are also in danger of exposure.

While the use of asbestos has significantly decreased in buildings today, many commercial properties built throughout the 60s and 70s are still in regular use. It’s important that people who spend their time in these office spaces know what the risks of exposure are.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fiber that contains heat-resistant properties, and can take many shapes and forms as an additive in many applications. There is no level of asbestos deemed safe to come into contact with; if exposed to the mineral asbestos, one could develop a multitude of lung diseases and respiratory health complications.

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that takes 20–50 years to manifest in the soft tissues of the body, and it is a terminal cancer with limited treatment options. The disease tends to be most common in occupational workers since these employees work with asbestos on a regular basis. According to the World Health Organization, 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos while working. While there is no cure for mesothelioma, there are ways to prevent exposure while in the workplace.

Look for disruptions

Asbestos is significantly less dangerous when the mineral fibers are completely intact. It’s when the asbestos-containing materials become exposed or disrupted that airborne fibers become a threat. Pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD says that before asbestos was banned, it could be found more regularly in ceilings, floors, and certain paints, as well as many other construction products. If you are working in an older building, be mindful of places where asbestos could have been used and then disrupted or exposed. Places with exposed insulation, decaying ceiling tiles, and loose laminate flooring tiles are each sites that have been linked to containing asbestos. If there is a problem area at your job site that raises concerns, be sure to report it to your human resources department.

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Renovations

As buildings age, renovations will need to be made. Some projects may include tearing down walls and ripping up floors, which unfortunately would constitute as a disruption. Newer companies that operate in older buildings like to add their own flair, which means that aged office space is more likely to be renovated for personal company reasons or simply just to be brought up to code. If your company is planning or has recently done renovations that include construction work, get involved. Ask what types of renovations are being done, what the building is made of, and what your company’s doing to create a safe work environment if there are concerns.

Building history

Depending on where you work and how old your office building is, there might be an opportunity for you to ask about the history of the building. If you are working in a building constructed before the 1980s, asbestos has the potential to lurk. Although asbestos has been banned in nearly 60 countries, the United States is not among them. In fact, 1 percent of asbestos material is still allowed for use while constructing buildings, which doesn't eliminate the issue of exposure, it only decreases it.

Lastly, do your own due diligence. To find out the building’s construction history, ask your HR department if they have any information. If that doesn’t work, you can always ask building management and they should have access to any and all information regarding the building's date, age, and how it was assembled.

As mentioned, even though asbestos it is not commonly used today, one should still be aware of its possible presence at work, home, and in public places. Remember, your health is top priority in any environment. Asking the right questions at work and keeping these preventative measures in mind have the potential to ensure your safety throughout your career.

Rachel Lynch is the press and media coordinator for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.

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