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What is Asbestos? | Is Asbestos Dangerous? | Where Can Asbestos Be Found? | Does Asbestos Have To Be Removed? | Is Demolition or Renovation Of A Structure Involved? | More Information

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the common name for a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals that separate into strong fibers with exceptional thermal and electrical insulating properties.  Asbestos was widely used in the past for fireproofing and insulation.  Individual asbestos fibers are so small that they cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope.  The small, buoyant fibers are easily inhaled or swallowed, causing a number of serious diseases.  US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers asbestos exposure such a threat that it has pursued banning most uses of asbestos.  Information published by the American Lung Association (ALA) states "There is no known safe exposure to asbestos.  The greater the exposure, the greater the risk of developing asbestos-related diseases."

A rule published July 12, 1989, banned most applications of asbestos, only to be overturned by the Fifth Circuit court of Appeals in October 1991.  However, the court did maintain the ban on certain uses of asbestos, such as in textured ceiling spray and sprayed-on fireproofing for structural support beams. 

Six different asbestos minerals have been used in thousands of private, commercial, and public applications.  The Asbestos Institute reports "modern asbestos products are as different from the old ones as night and day."  Only one of the six asbestos minerals is presently used in the marketplace.  Chrysotile, which is the form of asbestos having the longest and largest fibers and therefore is less likely to be inhaled or ingested, historically has been the variety of the mineral used most widely in the manufacturing arena and that remains the same today. 

Currently, the asbestos industry only markets dense and nonfriable materials in which the fiber is "bound" or encapsulated in a cement or resin.  Of the asbestos that is mined worldwide, ninety percent (90%) of it is being mixed with cement in the form of pipes, sheets and shingles.  Asbestos may be used to a limited degree in other nonfriable products.  As a result, there are asbestos containing products still on the market today. A new building does not mean that it is asbestos-free.

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Is Asbestos Dangerous?
There are some myths circulating today that asbestos is not as dangerous as it was once claimed to be. This is not true.  Asbestos is a carcinogen and exposure to it can lead to several types of health effects.  Health effects from exposure to asbestos have a delayed effect or latency period.  Health effects resulting from exposure to asbestos may not appear for 10 to 40 years after the exposure.  If you know you have been exposed, inform your physician so that he/she may monitor your condition over the years.

Exposure to asbestos does not necessarily create health problems although people exposed to higher concentrations of airborne asbestos have a greater risk of developing asbestos related diseases. There is no known safe level of asbestos exposure.

Since the mid 1900's many studies have shown the health effects associated with exposure to asbestos.  These studies have shown that high levels of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers cause a variety of pulmonary diseases.  The greater the exposure, the greater the chance of health effects.  There have been cases of low level exposure to asbestos that have led to asbestos related health problems.  Health effects resulting from asbestos exposure have a latency period where the results may not appear for 10 to 40 years.  Some asbestos-related diseases include:  


  • Asbestosis:  A scarring of the tissues of the lungs which cause a reduction in lung capacity.
  • Mesothelioma:  A rare form of cancer involving the lining of the lungs, chest, or abdomen. This disease is always associated with asbestos exposure and is fatal.
  •  Cancer:  Lung, stomach and colon cancer, and other pleural diseases may also be asbestos-related.


Studies determining health effects from asbestos exposure have been based on airborne asbestos fibers. An individual can be exposed to asbestos two ways; inhalation or ingestion.  Asbestos is either inhaled because of airborne asbestos fibers or asbestos is ingested or swallowed.  An example of this is asbestos transite pipes used underground to transport water to homes and buildings.  Transite is a cement material that contains asbestos which deteriorates over time.  As the transite deteriorates, asbestos fibers can be released from the interior of the pipe into the drinking water flowing through the pipe.

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Where Can Asbestos Be Found?
Asbestos is present in many common building materials used in private homes and in public buildings.  An asbestos containing product cannot be determined by sight.  The only way to determine if asbestos is definitely present in a material is through microscopic analysis by an approved laboratory.  Some common materials that may contain asbestos include:  

  • Flooring materials including 9 inch-by-9 inch floor tile (older, thicker floor tile); 12 inch by 12 inch floor tile (commonly used today); sheet linoleum and sheet vinyl floor covering (the gray fibrous paper-like backing is very often asbestos); mastic (glue located under the floor tile or linoleum).


  • Ceiling materials including sprayed-on and troweled textured ceilings/walls; ceiling tiles and panels.


  • Sheetrock and joint compound; occasionally plaster coat and base.


  • Roofing materials such as flashing; felt; shingles; roll roofing; built-up roofing; tar and mastics.


  • Cement-asbestos siding (transite); transite wall/window panels; transite soffits; underground piping.


  • Insulation including Aircell; hard pipe insulation; pipe wrap; surface insulation; and rarely, attic insulation.


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Does Asbestos Have to be Removed?
There are still no regulations that require removal of asbestos containing materials unless the structures are being demolished or renovated.  The best advice is to take appropriate steps to minimize the likelihood of asbestos exposure.  Asbestos containing materials that are in good condition and are not sanded or sawed are often better left in place and perhaps covered over for additional stability and protection.

EPA recommends a pro-active established management program with removal of the asbestos-containing materials occurring only if they are in poor condition or when they are likely to release asbestos fibers as a result of some type of contact activity.

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Is Demolition or Renovation of a Structure Involved?
For proposed demolition or renovation of a structure in Mecklenburg County, the asbestos NESHAP, a federal rule administered by MCAQ, is applicable to all facilities that are being demolished and those facilities being renovated where renovation may result in regulated asbestos containing materials ("RACM") being stripped, removed, dislodged, cut, drilled, or similarly disturbed in regulated quantities. 

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