Asbestos has a negative reputation, but few know the actual specifics of what it is and how it affects us.
Asbestos is a mineral found in rock and soil, and because it’s resistant to temperature and electricity, it was widely used in manufacturing, including to insulate buildings, throughout the 20th century. It's important to protect yourself from asbestos exposure, but if you find asbestos in your home all is not lost.
Today, because of knowledge about the health risks of asbestos, it is rarely used in the U.S., however, older buildings and homes can still be susceptible to asbestos exposure. Asbestos can cause lung diseases and also increase the chance of several cancers. It is mostly known as a cause of mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lungs and chest cavities.
It’s important to take immediate action if you think you’ve been exposed to asbestos. Here are some steps you can start with.
Step away and warn others as soon as possible.
“The first thing you need to do is to stop all the work and to put up a sign to warn other people about the presence of asbestos,” Dr. Shuhan He, an emergency medicine physician at Harvard Massachusetts General Hospital, says. “Before you put up a sign, make sure you get far away from the source and wipe your clothes with a wet cloth then remove your clothes and shoes and put them in a plastic bag. Also, you can wash yourself and your hair. Asbestos is a mineral that resembles fibers and it can be really hard to detect.”
Get professional help.
You’ll also want to contact the proper authorities and professionals.
“When discovering asbestos you should notify the relevant authorities and consider how long you've been exposed to it,” Dr. Dilraj Kalsi, a London-based physician, says. “If it is years, tell your doctor. It takes many years of exposure to cause asbestosis but it is best to be cautious.”
In the U.S., you can call your state asbestos contact, who can direct you to professionals in your area. You can also hire a licensed contractor to fix the exposed area. “Paying to have someone do the job properly is a good investment considering the potential side-effects,” Dr. He says.
Do not clean or try to repair exposure yourself.
The EPA advises homeowners and anyone who is not a professional to leave asbestos alone after they’ve found it. The best recourse is to avoid the area and leave it to professionals – your health might depend on it.
“The only prevention is to reduce your contact with asbestos completely,” Dr. He says. “Make it your priority.”
Get your health checked.
You’ll also want to get tested for toxic asbestos exposure. “Long term exposure to asbestos is going to cause severe health issues for almost anyone,” Dr. He says. “Also, keep in mind that asbestos can be a slow killer especially during prolonged and daily exposure. Even a small amount can be harmful.”
There are also symptoms that might be telling.“Thereafter if you experience persistent chest symptoms such as shortness of breath and a dry cough, it is definitely worth getting a chest x-ray,” Dr. Kalsi says.
So, if you believe you’ve ever been exposed to asbestos, and especially if you have symptoms, get to a doctor as soon as possible.