Asbestos is one of those things that many people hear about but don’t really understand. People know that older buildings seem to have a lot of asbestos, they know that the material can cause health problems, and they know that there is a concerted effort to have the material removed from older buildings. That said, many people don’t actually know what asbestos is or where it can be found. So what is asbestos? Why is it bad for people? Is this really an issue New Yorkers have to worry about? Asbestos and its effects can be complicated, but RentHop is here to answer all these questions and more.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. The fibers in asbestos make it an incredibly durable material, which is why it was often used for fire-proofing buildings, insulation, roofing, flooring, and even in cars. There are several kinds of asbestos, each one with different properties. Of these variations, five pose the greatest health risk to human beings. Sadly, these five are also commonly found in buildings, cars, and the infrastructure that makes up our cities and towns. While this mineral is naturally occurring, it can be used to strengthen and isolate a number of items and materials, which is why everyone has had at least some exposure to asbestos during their life.
History of Asbestos
Asbestos has been used by human beings for thousands of years. Many experts even claim the word comes from ancient Greek or Latin. Ancient societies used the fibrous material to insulate clothes. Eventually, people discovered that the material was largely fireproof, which made it very valuable to the rich and powerful in society. One of the more famous uses of asbestos comes from King Charlemagne of France, who used a tablecloth woven with asbestos to stave off fires that would frequent his home during raucous celebrations.
While its uses were known, asbestos was rather rare, typically used by the wealthy members of any given society. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the mineral found its way into the households of common folks. The Industrial Revolution kicked things into high gear, making it possible to manufacture more asbestos and find new ways it could be utilized. Soon the fiber was found in everything from houses to trains. In a few short decades, asbestos became foundational in the infrastructure of the United States and Europe. That said, the correlation between asbestos exposure and health concerns was already being noticed.
Those who mined the mineral, especially, had a higher rate of lung disease, as did the factory workers who were exposed to larger amounts of asbestos for a longer period of time. Still, the mineral was produced in larger and larger quantities as the years went by. By the early 1900s, 30,000 tons of asbestos products were manufactured annually. This increase in mining and production peaked in the US during the 1970s. While nearly 4 million tons of asbestos products were being produced at that time, solid scientific evidence linking asbestos exposure and health concerns was becoming more well-known. It wasn’t just the factory workers and miners who were seeing negative impacts anymore.
Soon workers’ unions, scientists, and activists began advocating for safer infrastructure and working conditions. Several lawsuits against asbestos companies crippled the industry in many places, and the material was banned in many countries in 2003. Among these countries were Italy, Argentina, Poland, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and many more. By 2005, the EU banned the material entirely. Though the United States has yet to issue a complete ban on asbestos, the last mine for it in the states closed in 2002. Today, many developing nations still use the material, but most of the world has been making efforts to steer away from the natural fiber.
What Is Asbestos Used For?
Asbestos is a highly durable material used for fireproofing, strengthening materials, and building. Many recent uses for asbestos include:
- Building insulation
- Insulation for electric wiring
- Roofing and flooring
- Reinforcement for paint, plaster, and caulking materials
- Brakes for cars and planes
While the material is natural and all around us, long term exposure can be very harmful to people. Asbestos in older buildings is especially common in the walls, roofing, and wiring, meaning someone could be surrounded by asbestos and not even know it.
What Health Problems Are Associated with Asbestos?
The most common health concern surrounding asbestos is mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that can form nearly half a century after initial exposure to the material. Other health risks include a less aggressive form of lung cancer, as well as asbestosis, a condition in which the lungs become inflamed and make it hard to breathe. While most people are exposed to some asbestos during their life, these illnesses usually pop up when people face long term exposure to the fiber. For example, people who live in a home lined with asbestos are at an increased risk, as are workers who handle the materials. Other factors, like smoking, can increase the likelihood of these conditions.
Asbestos needs to be either inhaled or ingested in order to be dangerous. Fibers build up in lungs and digestive tissues, damaging cells and changing their genetic makeup. This significantly increases the risk for cancer and even basic inflammation of the lungs or digestive system. For this reason, only those certified to handle the material should deal with it. Those in unsafe asbestos conditions should leave the building until the issue is resolved.
How Do I Know If I’ve Been Exposed To Asbestos?
There is no specific test to determine whether someone has been exposed to a dangerous amount of asbestos. There are tests to determine if a building or space has dangerous amounts of the material, but the health effects caused by it can remain dormant for decades. People who live in a building constructed before 1980, work with insulation, or dispose of asbestos have a higher risk, as do those who smoke cigarettes.
How To Know If An NYC Apartment Has Asbestos
New York City has done a pretty good job when it comes to getting rid of asbestos. However, there are a lot of buildings here, so it pays to be cautious. Any building constructed before 1980 will likely have some asbestos unless its interior has been fully renovated. Even then, some asbestos from the original build might be left behind. Those who suspect or worry that their apartment complex has asbestos should call 311 or go to nyc.gov and file a complaint. A licensed inspector from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will gather samples from the air and apartment materials to see if residents are in any danger.
What If Asbestos is Found In My Building?
Landlords and building owners are solely responsible for making sure asbestos is disposed of in a safe way that complies with federal and state regulations. It’s possible that pipes, boilers, or furnaces in a complex might contain asbestos. If they are broken, then it’s up to the building’s ownership to replace them immediately. They are also responsible for fixing any conditions that would expose tenants to asbestos in the building’s foundation. Landlords are only required to remove asbestos if the material in the building is unstable. That said, they must follow all OSHA requirements for the removal of the material.
New York City also has an asbestos abatement program. This allows all landlords and building owners to ask the DEP to investigate buildings before an asbestos complaint is made. Those who don’t wish to file a complaint but want to see if their building has asbestos issues should speak to their landlords about this program. It’s an easy and efficient way to deal with asbestos before it becomes a major problem for other residents in the building.
What If My Landlord Doesn’t Comply With The DEP’s Investigation?
If the DEP finds unsafe asbestos conditions and a landlord or building owner refuses to solve the issue, file a complaint with the housing authority. Residents should try to resolve these issues on their own before resorting to housing court, though an unresponsive landlord might not give residents much choice. More importantly, if unsafe asbestos conditions are found in a home, and a building owner is doing nothing about it, residents should find a safe place to go until the issue is resolved.
People have been using asbestos for thousands of years, and the material has been around even longer. Asbestos is everywhere, even in trace amounts of the air we breathe. While most people won’t face asbestos-related issues, exposure to asbestos is still a major issue, especially in cities with older buildings. It’s important to recognize the dangers of asbestos and take the steps to get rid of it or make necessary repairs to contain it. New York City has a ton of resources available to help residents and building owners solve asbestos issues before they even arise, so make sure to become acquainted with them. The more people know about the dangers of asbestos, the healthier the city will be.