What’s the Big Deal About Asbestos?

We’ve all heard of asbestos, but few of us really know much more about it than “it’s bad for you”. What is asbestos and why is it such a problem? For those of us working around and in old houses and buildings, it’s particularly curious. Here’s why…


The name “asbestos” comes from the Greek, and means “inextinguishable”, which hints at its ability to resist burning. The asbestos most of us know refers to the fibrous variety of six naturally-occurring minerals once used extensively in manufactured products. Its high tensile strength, flexibility, and resistance to electrical, chemical, and thermal effects made it especially valuable in construction.


Asbestos has been in use for the last 4,500 years, but only since the mid-nineteenth century did it blossom into widespread use. Ancient Persians actually used to amaze guests by “cleaning” their cloth napkins by throwing them into the fire…napkins made from the asbestos fiber, which would not burn. Charlemagne was said to have had a table cloth made from asbestos. The Romans actually were the first to notice health issues associated with it, but it took until the 1920s (although still prevalently used) before it had begun to gain widespread attention for its ill-effects. By the 1980’s, the US construction industry had begun to ban its use completely. Still, it remains in the structures all around us, embedded in insulation, ceiling tiles and vinyl flooring, fire resistant sheetrock, chimney cement exterior siding, and even lawn furniture. Estimates are that over 1,000 tons of asbestos contaminated material was released into the air on the 9/11 Attacks. Studies are still monitoring the long-term effects on the citizens of New York.


Although asbestos served its intended purpose, it is also very dangerous. It is a known carcinogen and may put anyone exposed to it at risk. In the case of Asbestos Cement Exterior Siding, the material is relatively harmless if left undisturbed. But once the siding or shingles become cracked or broken, the fibers release and become deadly when inhaled. Asbestos exposure may lead to major diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis (a lung disease), and lung cancer. The discovery of the pronounced health risks associated with asbestos have led the federal EPA to strictly regulate its disturbance and disposal.


Licensed Asbestos Abatement (removal) companies wear a host of safety gear, including a full Haz-Mat style suit, when removing any materials. It’s so invasive though, workers are encouraged to dispose of all clothing at the end of a workday, even clothing worn under their protective gear.


When a deconstruction company comes in, and asbestos inspection is crucial in identifying any hazardous materials. Old houses are laden with asbestos-impregnated components, and it is very important not to allow the fibers to contaminate the area around the property as deconstruction work takes place.