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The Big Deal about Asbestos


By Michael Halliwell

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Once again, asbestos is hitting the headlines.

There have been articles about school-board employees being exposed via sanding tiles and a potential cover-up, about an unscrupulous individual using her certified employer’s credentials to issue training certificates for workers that didn’t set foot in the classroom or take the required exam, and many more examples where this material has made news.

© / baytunc

It took decades to recognize the danger of asbestos exposure and to start protecting workers. By then, much damage was done.

So what’s the deal, right? Wasn’t this a “miracle mineral” not that long ago?

A Little Primer

So what exactly is asbestos? Well, it is a silicate mineral that occurs naturally. Humans have known about it, quite honestly, for ages.

It has been found in Stone Age pottery (likely used as a strengthener) and Roman-era napkins and cloth goods.

Marco Polo is said to have been shown asbestos-containing cloth (then called salamander’s wool) in Siberia in the 13th century.

But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we really started making widespread use of asbestos for its insulating, flame-resistant, noise-dampening, chemical-resistant and flexibility properties.

The Miracle Material

More recently, asbestos found use in sprayed thermal insulation, acoustic and decorative ceilings, floor tiles, roofing materials, plaster/drywall compound, sheet vinyl flooring, asbestos cement siding, stucco and pipe insulation and mortar—amongst many, many other uses.

It seemed to be the perfect material to enhance the durability of so many products.

Asbestos Removal
© / bermau

Back in the day, asbestos was used in so many building materials because it was so versatile and so durable. Generations later, there is much of it to remove.

So what went wrong?

Connecting the Dots

Well, simply put, we connected the dots.

In Roman times, Pliny noted that slaves weaving asbestos would contract lung ailments. In the early 1900s, a post-mortem examination noted extensive pulmonary fibrosis in an asbestos textile worker. By 1935, there were published medical articles linking asbestos exposure to lung cancer.

It took a while. As we later learned, exposure to asbestos doesn't instantly cause illness; the consequences of asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma could take up to 40 years to appear.

However, we finally realized (or, rather, admitted) what asbestos was doing to our bodies.

Fighting Back

So we started protecting workers from exposure to friable, or crumbly, asbestos.

Eventually, we also figured out that even the non-friable stuff (where the fibers were trapped in the product) was releasing asbestos as folks did renovations or other activities that destroyed or damaged the product.

So we banned asbestos to protect ourselves—from exposure and from all the related lawsuits.

It's Ba-ack

So if it was banned, why is it back in the news so much?


These are someone's lungs on asbestos. Fortunately, if you are reading this, they are not yours.

Well, simply, because it helped make such durable products, and was used in so many materials, that it’s still out there.

Renovations and maintenance on ships, commercial and industrial buildings, homes and utilities all keep running into asbestos-containing products. Many of the materials containing asbestos are finally reaching the end of their service lives or are being updated and need to be dealt with.

And it’s the "dealing with it" properly (or, rather, improperly) that has made the news.

How it Works

Asbestos fibers, like silica dust particles, are microscopically fine. They get deep into the lungs and get lodged there.

Like with other forms of silica, the body can’t break down the fibers, so it protects itself by encasing them, which leads to scarring in that area and to other things like cancer.

Because your body can’t get totally rid of the fibers, you need to prevent them from getting into the lungs in the first place. That means proper training, the right personal protective equipment, and proper handling of any asbestos-containing material to minimize the release of fibers.

© / bermau

Asbestos abatement is a dirty and dangerous job—for the workers, their families, and anyone else near the site. And that is why appropriate licensing and procedures matter.

Shortcuts in any of these areas can backfire in exposure for workers and their families (since fibers can travel home on workclothes and fall off when the clothes are shed or washed).

Unfortunately, it can take as little as one exposure to cause serious health effects 10, 20 or even 40 years later.

And if you smoke and are exposed to asbestos—like so many in their 40s, 50s and 60s—it’s a double whammy that results in a far, far higher likelihood of lung disease than either hazard alone.

Why It Matters

So, the next time you see an article in PaintSquare News about uncertified workers doing abatement work, a company being hit with a fine for not informing its workers about asbestos, or a shady trainer out to make a quick buck, please take note.

Asbestos may seem minor compared to some of the articles you read, because you won’t see a story of an instant death due to exposure—but it does have a significant health impact and serious death toll.

If you don’t believe me, start scanning your local obituaries. Look for lung cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma.

See how many deaths are related to asbestos exposures.


Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell, M.Eng., CESA, EP, P.Eng., is an Associate and Environmental Engineer for Thurber Engineering Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. During his 17-plus years with the company, he has been involved with environmental site assessment, remediation, construction inspection and supervision, and project management. He also performs hazardous building material assessments for asbestos and lead paint.



Tagged categories: Asbestos; Health and safety; Thurber Engineering Ltd.

Comment from arieh calahorra, (12/21/2014, 2:24 AM)

A Very important reminder

Comment from Alan Nesbitt, (1/20/2015, 1:44 AM)

Back in the early 1970's I worked for a Contractor in a British Shipyard who had a team of 14 Laggers, there are 3 of us left all the rest died from asbestos related disease, and sadly one of my colleagues has the symptoms, Asbestosis is a Painful slow death so I would never think of it as minor, but I understand where your coming from, I to have heard stories of workers taking home fibres on there clothing affecting their close family.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (1/21/2015, 2:59 PM)

Alan, that particular line was because we have a few reading these articles that think this "asbestos thing" is just a sham / scam for folks to make money on abatement. They think that because exposure won't knock you down there and then (hence they see it as a "minor" thing), that it isn't deadly. Thank you for providing your personal experience that it is, in fact, very deadly indeed.

Comment from David Zuskin, (2/10/2015, 6:50 PM)

In the mid eighties we had strange failure of a major marine paint manufacturers Inorganic Zinc; mud-cracking in the wide open at 4-5 mils DFT. The paint company replaced the material and compensated us. One of the reps was a good friend. He told me that asbestos had been used in the zinc dust as an anti-caking agent and the failure was the result of the company having stopped using the asbestos. I think about the times during large applications of IOZ when the air was heavy with the dust from adding the zinc powder to the ethyl silicate liquid. I tried to do some research on this years ago and found some info out of Australia but nothing more.

Comment from Mike McCloud, (2/12/2015, 8:08 AM)

Asbestosis and Mesothelioma are one of the worst ways to die. Long months of the lungs just slowly shutting down. The best prevention is to avoid asbestos ...and don't smoke!

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