Could taking your dog for a daily walk increase your risk of developing mesothelioma? Yes, if that daily walk takes you through an old asbestos-contaminated area and stepping on the soil releases long dormant asbestos fibers into the air that you unknowingly breathe.
That is why the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing new ways to more accurately measure asbestos risk. These include focusing on the types of activity occurring at a specific site and how they may increase asbestos exposure.
“Unlike a number of other contaminants, the main risk of asbestos is not so much direct contact but inhalation of the fibers that can enter the air if material contaminated with asbestos is disturbed,” said Julie Wroble, a toxicologist with the EPA’s Washington regional office in Seattle.
Across the U.S. there are sites embedded with naturally occurring asbestos or commercially-made products containing asbestos that may put people at risk for asbestos exposure, according to Wroble. “At the EPA we have been developing techniques to better estimate this exposure and the resulting health risks” she said.
Wroble made her remarks at CleanUp 2013, the world’s leading scientific contamination conference, which is being held in Melbourne, Australia this month. She presented the latest techniques used by the federal EPA to estimate exposure risk to asbestos.
Every two years, scientists, engineers, regulators and other environmental professionals from many countries gather in Australia for this major conference addressing contaminated site remediation.
This year’s program featured 200 speakers and over 50 poster presentations.
“It’s not enough to just sample the contaminated material. There are a number of other factors that need to be considered when assessing how likely the fibers are to get into the air,” said Wroble.
“For example, we need to know what type of fibers we are dealing with and even what the weather is typically like in the local area. Most importantly we need to know what kind of activities take place at that site and whether these could release asbestos.”
Wroble and her EPA colleagues developed a system called “Activity Sampling” that measures the amount of asbestos fibers likely to be inhaled as a result of possible activities. They are trying to standardize techniques used to measure asbestos exposure risk across the US. This will allow for comparisons between sites in different parts of the country and help EPA determine which sites to clean up first.