Ensuring Environmental Health Means Addressing Asbestos

By Anna Suarez, a public health advocate focused on raising awareness about how the built environment and the presence of toxins can influence human health.

Sustainability, or the ability to use resources without degrading them for future generations, has strong ties to public health. Despite being able to supercede certain aspects of the natural world, humans are still subject to the necessities of clean air and clean water. The field of environmental health helps bridge the gap between people and the natural environment, and makes a case for simultaneously protecting both health and resources.

But environmental health is also a concern in the built environment, such as buildings and cities. It’s estimated that people today spend about 90% of their time indoors, making those spaces all the more impactful on health. Some of the materials used to create man-made structures can actually have a negative impact on air quality and subsequently on public health. Today, although some materials are known hazards, they can still be present in our built environment and therefore still a risk to people. A great example of one such material is asbestos, once thought of as a miracle product that was widely used in construction and automotive industries. Understanding the health risks present in our everyday environments is one step toward ensuring a more sustainable future.

Asbestos can be found naturally in some parts of North America and was mined for use in a variety of materials and building products. Mining operations continued until as late as 2011 in Canada, and one town even going so far as to name itself Asbestos. The mineral’s natural properties made it an ideal choice for use in a wide variety of products. Asbestos fibers are exceptionally durable, and even resistant to heat and fire. This resistance to degradation helped ensure the longevity of the products in which it was incorporated.

However, just like asbestos cannot be degraded by the physical environment, it similarly cannot be broken down by the human body. This makes any asbestos fibers that are accidentally inhaled or ingested very dangerous as they can cause scarring of the body’s tissues. Over time, this can lead to illnesses such as a cancer known as mesothelioma, which has an average life expectancy of about one year after diagnosis.

The health risks associated with this toxin are incredibly harsh and heartbreaking for patients and their families. When it comes to asbestos, avoiding exposure is the key to preventing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. The Canadian government notes that asbestos can still be found in the following materials:

  • cement and plaster
  • industrial furnaces and heating systems
  • building insulation
  • floor and ceiling tiles
  • house siding
  • car and truck brake pads
  • vehicle transmission components, such as clutches

In the fall of 2016, the Canadian government announced that it would ban asbestos. Canada has previously been one of the largest exporters of the mineral, but asbestos was also considered the largest occupational killer in Canada, claiming as many as 2,000 lives annually. Over fifty countries around the world have already banned asbestos, not to mention the World Health Organization’s maintains a strict stance against asbestos. However, Canada is by no means the last country on the anti-asbestos bandwagon. The United States has yet to ban the material, but is currently evaluating it along with nine other toxic materials.

It’s important to note that although the Canadian asbestos ban was announced, it won’t take effect until 2018. Which means in the interim, and even after implementation, there is still a risk of interacting with asbestos. The greatest risk of developing an asbestos-related illness is through occupational exposure, which in developed nations primarily occurs during renovation, maintenance, or demolition of older buildings since those are more likely to contain asbestos.

September 26th marked Mesothelioma Awareness Day (MAD), which is our yearly reminder that asbestos and the cancers it can cause are still a part of our reality. Remaining educated about the risks of this material and where it can be found can help protect human health. And by examining sustainability holistically to include environmental health, we can see that it’s time to end the use toxic materials like asbestos. Only then can we collectively take steps toward a sustainable future.

Only certified abatement professionals should attempt to remove asbestos to ensure that the material is handled safely. Proper precautions protect everyone involved, including the workers, building occupants, and the public at large. Once the asbestos-containing material has been removed, the material is often disposed of in designated landfills. However, as available landfill space continues to decrease, recycling asbestos can be a good alternative. Asbestos can be added to into cement or heated at extremely high temperatures to form a glass or ceramic material. Again, these processes should only be completed by trained professionals, but you can certainly check with local household hazardous waste collection companies to see if they’re able to recycle the asbestos.