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Asbestos Exposure from HVAC Systems is not Always Clear-Cut

asbestos_exposureFor almost 100 years, scientists have been aware of the link between asbestos exposure and several deadly respiratory diseases. The widespread use of the mineral in construction during the 20th century has left asbestos-containing materials in many older private homes and commercial buildings. However, awareness of what products may be tainted – ceiling tiles, shingles, insulation and others – can protect inhabitants, who are generally safe as long as they leave these materials undisturbed.

But what happens if asbestos fibers break off these materials? If they become airborne, you’re more vulnerable to the potential negative health effects of asbestos exposure. If the fibers enter your building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, the risk can be even greater.

Asbestos use has a long and lengthy history
Although we know today that asbestos exposure can lead to malignant diseases, this was certainly not common in the time of ancient Greece. Experts from Indoor Environment Connection say that back then, people used the material for candle wicks and matrix binders for ceramic. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, and we see asbestos appearing in a wider range of products, including water pipes, roofing shingles and electrical wire insulation.

Asbestos was highly regarded for physical properties that made it resistant to heat, electricity and chemical wear and tear. However, during the early 20th century, scientists began to make connections between the mineral and diseases such as asbestosis. Although there have been several government efforts to curb the use and production of asbestos, industry stakeholders successfully derailed most of these efforts. As a result, asbestos is still allowed in the manufacturing of several products in the U.S., including cement sheets, roofing materials and vinyl floor tiles.

How can asbestos enter HVAC systems?
In 1993, experts estimated that about 20 percent of public and commercial buildings had asbestos-tainted products. If any of these items are disturbed and release mineral fibers into the air, the level of risk may be compounded by certain energy conservation efforts. Specifically, central air conditioning and inoperable windows promote air recirculation. If there’s asbestos in that air, people who enter the building may be in danger.

This is what experts from Indoor Environment Connection had to say:

“Determining whether building HVAC components are contaminated with asbestos can be exceptionally obvious or exceedingly difficult. In buildings where fireproofing was sprayed onto structural metal framing or into HVAC systems because of incomplete duct installation, the source of asbestos fibers is obvious. Unfortunately, it is often not simple. HVAC system component contamination that occurred during original construction is often hidden.”

If you’re curious about where asbestos may be present in your building, contact the owner or manager, and ask to see the Operations and Maintenance program. This should contain instructions on how to safely isolate and maintain asbestos-containing materials.

It’s not always clear whether a product contains asbestos. Samples of the item can be collected for laboratory analysis, but the collection should only be performed by a trained expert.

In case your building’s HVAC system is contaminated with asbestos, professional cleaners can be hired to take care of it. This is usually done with specially designed vacuum cleaners that are equipped with HEPA filters.

Every year, asbestos-related diseases claim the lives of more than 9,900 individuals in the U.S. These numbers will increase for the next 10 years or so. Remember that if asbestos is present in your building, don’t panic. You’re safe as long as it’s in good condition.

But that doesn’t mean you have to accept the situation. If you’re concerned about being exposed to asbestos all around you, contact your lawmakers and let them know how you feel about continued industrial use of the mineral.

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