What You Don't Know Might Hurt You

Many of the construction materials used prior to 1981 are asbestos-containing materials, or ACMs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are ACMs in more than 700,000 public and commercial buildings, as well as in more than 100,000 primary and secondary schools. How do you handle these materials? Carefully — and with knowledge.


Asbestos comes from a Greek word meaning“not extinguishable.” A mineral, asbestos is mined in much the same way as iron, lead or copper.

There are basically three varieties of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. Chrysotile is pliable and cylindrical shaped. It is often arranged in bundles. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), 95 percent of the asbestos in commercial use in the United States today is chrysotile.

Asbestos is strong, yet flexible. It is famous for its ability to resist flame and heat. Asbestos is an effective insulation but a poor conductor of electricity. In the early 1900s, it was used in the United States to insulate steam engines. At the end of World War II and for the next 30 years, asbestos was used extensively for school construction and renovation.

Today, the EPA estimates asbestos is found in as many as 3,000 commercial products in concentrations ranging from one to 100 percent. Some of those products include vinyl floor tile and adhesives, insulation, textured paints, coatings, ceiling tiles, HVAC duct insulation, roofing shingles, felt and chalkboards.

Asbestos and Health

Asbestos has been linked to serious and often fatal health problems. The fibers can easily penetrate body tissues — especially the airways and lungs — where they can remain undetected for years.

Diseases, such as silicosis (a lung disease), asbestosis (a non-cancerous respiratory disease) and mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer), have been directly linked to asbestos exposure.

According to a study that tracked silicosis deaths by occupation, cleaning workers had the sixth highest incidence of the disease. Custodial workers were the tenth most common occupation in deaths caused by asbestosis.

Dr. Gregory Wagner is director of the Respiratory Disease study division for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.“The critical issue is making sure that people know when asbestos is present and receive adequate protection. Exposure control is the only effective means of prevention,” he says.

Although asbestos can be ingested, or eaten, most exposure is the result of inhaling airborne fibers. Exposure can be occupational as a result of work performed, and families of workers may be exposed by fibers brought home on clothing. Neighborhood exposure occurs to people who live or work in places where asbestos is released into the air.

The EPA estimates 27 million Americans had significant occupational exposure to asbestos between 1940 and 1980. But officials point out that the mere presence of asbestos does not necessarily constitute a risk. Several factors must be considered in determining the danger.

Risk Factors

One of the most important considerations is whether ACMs are friable or non-friable. A friable asbestos containing material is one that, when dry, can be crumbled by hand pressure. An example of a friable ACM is fluffy, spray-applied fireproofing.

Non-friable ACMs are asbestos-containing materials that do not crumble with hand pressure. Many vinyl floor tiles are non-friable. While these tiles do not release asbestos fibers under normal use, they can release asbestos during stripping, buffing or other aggressive activities.

In addition to the types of ACMs workers are exposed to, the condition of the materials is also an important factor. Damaged ACMs are more likely to release dangerous fibers than ACMs in good condition. In a 1984 survey, The EPA found approximately 66 percent of buildings that contained asbestos contained damaged ACMs.

Finally, the risk of exposure is dependent upon the concentration of asbestos fibers in the air, the length of the exposure, the breathing rate of the worker and whether or not the worker wore any protective equipment.

Researchers have also determined that the younger people are during the exposure, the more likely they are to develop asbestos-related diseases.


Recognizing the danger to children, the government first began its push to control asbestos use in 1982 with the EPA’s Asbestos in Schools Rule. Four years later, officials felt the asbestos threat was so serious they toughened the law.

In 1986, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act — AHERA — required inspections every three years and management plans developed by accredited planners and approved by the state.

That same year, the EPA also proposed an immediate ban on major uses of asbestos and a complete ban on all asbestos products within the next decade. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the regulation was too broad and limited the ban to asbestos flooring and new products using asbestos.

By 1989, government officials struck a compromise with the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule. This plan would eventually ban 94 percent of the asbestos used in the United States. It was implemented in three stages between 1990 and 1997.

The EPA also regulates asbestos under clean air statutes. Under the National Emission Standards of Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), asbestos was one of the first hazardous air pollutants to be regulated. This standard is intended to minimize the release of asbestos fibers during activities involving the handling of asbestos.

While the EPA concentrated on developing and enforcing regulations to protect the general public from airborne exposure, OSHA concentrated on developing guidelines for the health and safety of workers who may be exposed to asbestos in connection with their jobs.

OSHA Standards

OSHA divides work into four classifications when it comes to asbestos. Class I workers are typically those with higher exposures. These workers are often involved in the mining or milling of asbestos. Class IV workers, those with the least exposure, are typically cleaning workers who may be responsible for cleaning up after asbestos abatement or removal projects. General housekeeping work is regulated by OSHA’s general industry standards.

Cleaning workers in both categories are required to receive asbestos awareness training. That training must include the health affects of asbestos, the location of ACMs, how to recognize damaged or deteriorating ACMs and the proper response to a fiber release.

Awareness training takes about two hours and is not accredited. It should be offered to both classifications of cleaning workers and can be taught by someone within your organization.

Class IV cleaning workers must also receive an additional 14 hours worth of training from an accredited school or contractor. While OSHA does not conduct either type of training, they can refer you to certified contractors within your area. EPA regional offices can also help provide awareness training materials and contractor referrals. State health departments may also be helpful in this respect.

Identifying Asbestos

“Basically, any floor put down prior to January 1981, in all probability, is ACM,” says Larry McGurk, president of UAS Automation Systems. The Orlando, Fla.-based company specializes in the removal of asbestos flooring nationwide.

Although the age of the building or the material in question may make you suspicious, it’s impossible to identify asbestos just by looking at it. “The only sure way to identify it is by taking a sample and having it analyzed by an accredited lab,” says Vick.

“It’s well worth it to pull a few samples and make sure the building is safe,” says Steven Parks, regional account executive for LA Testing. Based in Los Angeles, the company provides environmental testing for abatement firms, as well as private property owners and others.

According to Parks, there are three basic types of asbestos testing. PLM, or polarized light microscopy, is the easiest and simplest. A sample is prepared at the lab and placed under a microscope. Any asbestos present will show up under the microscope.

Air sampling with a specialized filter device will also reveal the presence of asbestos. The filters are examined under a special microscope to look for asbestos fibers.

Finally, Parks says soil sampling is becoming more of a concern. Contractors want to make certain excavation sites are safe before building begins.

EPA officials say you can collect a soil sample yourself by wetting the material with water mixed with a few drops of a surfactant, such as dish soap. Put the sample in an airtight plastic bag, and take it to an accredited lab. The EPA does not offer this type of testing. State health departments may be able to refer you to reputable companies who do.

The Right Company

Whether you’re seeking environmental testing or actual asbestos removal, experts say it’s critical to pick a company with the right credentials.

Burton T. Fried is an abatement contractor in New York City. His company, LVI Services, Inc., has removed asbestos from hospitals, commercial office buildings and manufacturing facilities throughout the United States. “Hire a contractor that’s licensed in the jurisdiction where the project is to be performed,” he advises. “Make sure the contractor has the experience and the staff to perform the project in accordance with appropriate regulations and in the time frame scheduled for the project.”

Even then, things can still go wrong. Vick recalls the fiasco at Ft. Morgan High School in Ft. Morgan, Colo. Several years ago the school hired a contractor to remove asbestos from the walls and ceilings using high-pressure water. The asbestos leaked around the containment area and ended up in walls, floors and lockers that were previously free from contamination. “In this case,” Vick says, “the company had a good reputation but the individual responsible at the job site wasn’t doing his job.” According to Vick, the contractor and industrial hygienist face criminal charges in the incident. Civil suits are pending as well.

If You Find Asbestos

The EPA only requires asbestos be removed if there is the likelihood of a significant public exposure — such as during building renovation or demolition.

The rest of the time, experts recommend in-place management. “Removal may not be in your best interest,” says Vick. “It could turn a non-dangerous situation into a dangerous one.”

Vick says the idea is to identify asbestos, manage it, and train and protect workers that may disturb the material. Since asbestos can only be identified through laboratory testing, Vick says samples should be tested before any other work is done.

Asbestos management includes routine monitoring of ACMs to make sure these materials are not deteriorating. AHERA regulations require schools to have an asbestos management plan. In public buildings, management plans are voluntary.

“Most public buildings have some asbestos control/identification plans in place,” says Dr. Wagner. “If this is not the case, it’s the responsibility of the employer to determine whether or not asbestos is present.”

Assessing the Risk to Cleaning Workers

“Routine cleaning operations should pose very little risk,” says NIOSH’s Dr. Wagner. “I think the biggest concern would be where either spray-on asbestos soundproofing, or fireproofing or insulating materials were used around pipes or electrical conduits. As the materials deteriorate, dust can accumulate.” Wagner says workers can become exposed to friable ACMs as ceiling tiles are damaged or replaced. “Replacing fluorescent light bulbs could create a disturbance that could cause potentially hazardous dust to fall.”

OSHA officials say walls and ceilings made from ACMs should not be cleaned. The idea is not to disturb these very porous types of materials.

McGurk says stripping and polishing floors can be very dangerous for cleaning workers. He recommends using EPA guidelines to keep exposure to a minimum.

Reducing Risk

Parks says property owners and cleaning contractors may need help from an environmental consultant. “By the time you get there, asbestos testing should have already been done. You should be in a safe environment.”

Dr. Wagner says a closed vacuum system and personal respirators can be beneficial.

Vick says vacuums with HEPA filters are a must. “If you use a regular vacuum, you’re going to blow asbestos all over the place.” Depending on what kind of cleaning you’re involved in, additional personal protective gear could be required.

“In most cases, you won’t need an environmental consultant for general cleaning,” Vick says. “But, you will need effective training according to the level of work you’re going to be involved with.”

Supplemental information provided by ProTeam, Inc. .