Is asbestos hazardous to your health?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the EPA have determined that asbestos is in fact a human carcinogen, and that breathing high levels of asbestos can increase the risk of lung membrane cancer (mesothelioma), scar tissue in the lungs (asbestosis), and cancers of the stomach, pancreas, and kidneys.

Asbestos fibers break easily into a dust that can float in the air, stick to clothes, and be inhaled or swallowed.  These ingested fibers can then become trapped in airways and lung tissue, resulting in lung infections, shortness of breath, coughing of blood, pain in the chest or abdomen, and significant weight loss. Cancers from asbestos typically do not develop immediately but show up after a significant amount of time; the latency period for mesothelioma is often 15­ to 30 years.

Research has not determined a safe level of exposure, but it is known that the greater and longer the exposure, the greater the risk of contracting an asbestos­related disease.  However, asbestos is not always an immediate hazard.  In fact, if asbestos can be maintained in good condition, it is recommended that it be left alone and periodic surveillance be performed to monitor its condition.  It is only when asbestos containing materials are disturbed or damaged that it becomes hazardous.

What OSHA standards apply to protect workers against asbestos exposure?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has the following three standards to protect workers from exposure to asbestos in the workplace:

  • 29 CFR 1926.1101 covers construction work,including alteration, repair, renovation, and demolition of structures containing asbestos.
  • 29 CFR 1915.1001 covers asbestos exposure during work in shipyards.
  • 29 CFR 1910.1001 applies to asbestos exposure in general industry, such as exposure during brake and clutch repair, custodial work, and
  • manufacture of asbestos-containing products.

What is the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976?

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 addresses the production, importation, use, and disposal of specific chemicals including asbestos. Congress enacted the law in response to the "unreasonable risk of injury to [a person's] health or the environment" caused by the use of certain chemical substances and mixtures. Significant portions of the law deal with inspecting and remedying asbestos hazards in school buildings.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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