Asbestos in older buildings and materials must be handled carefully to limit exposure, which often means disposing it in a designated landfill. Recycling asbestos may also be possible as researchers develop ways to safely reuse the materials intertwined with it.
Asbestos and Health
Asbestos is an abundant natural mineral that is easily mined from the earth. Although humans have long used this substance, it was only used on a large scale in the last century. Because we better understand the impacts of asbestos on human health, this substance is used less frequently.
The danger of asbestos is in its sharp, microscopic fibers. Once inhaled or ingested, these fibers can become lodged in tissues of the lungs, the lining of the lungs, and tissues of the chest cavity. Fibers may also end up in the abdomen and other areas as well.
Asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, asbestosis, and other lung diseases, as well as the deadly and rare type of cancer known as mesothelioma. The most common form of mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lungs and chest.
Where Asbestos Can Be Found Today
Asbestos is no longer used to the extent it was in the past; however, it is still used in many applications. In addition, asbestos is still present in many buildings constructed before the 1970s. These buildings were erected before the government enacted regulations restricting asbestos use.
It can still be found in roofing and flooring materials, siding, and insulation. In ships, asbestos was regularly used in insulation, gaskets, and other components. In vehicles, asbestos is used in clutches and brakes.
Because asbestos is harmful to health, workers and homeowners must handle it safely. Rules limit how and where it may be used in new construction.
Regulations for the Disposal of Asbestos
Because older buildings often contain asbestos, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed regulations for disposal of materials and limits for asbestos air pollution:
- For example, if a building is demolished, first it must be inspected.
- Workers must report any asbestos to a state agency, which guides how professionals in asbestos abatement are trained and licensed.
- These professionals must tackle the removal of the material before further work can be done.
Asbestos Disposal vs. Recycling
Recycling any material is often considered better than dumping in a landfill, but recycling hazardous materials is not always straightforward.
Most asbestos is placed in landfills; although, this is not a simple matter either. Asbestos-containing materials must be wetted to prevent fibers from becoming airborne. Then it must be sealed and clearly labeled. Next, the material can only be taken to landfills licensed to handle asbestos.
Once it arrives at the landfill, asbestos is left in a particular area designated for asbestos only. The landfill has the responsibility to ensure there are no leaks or emissions from the asbestos over time. The landfill must also ensure the material does not get compacted.
There are many issues with disposing of asbestos at a landfill. Even when done according to the rules, it is not foolproof. There is always a possibility it could contaminate the surrounding, soil, air, or water.
Recycling asbestos and asbestos-containing materials would save time and money. It would also provide a safer way to get rid of this harmful substance. As landfill space necessary for asbestos disposal fills, researchers must find new ways to recycle the material in a safe and environmentally-friendly manner.
How to Recycle Asbestos
With landfill space at a premium, researchers have developed at least one way to recycle asbestos removed from old buildings:
- The process begins with a chemical reaction. While asbestos resists most chemical reactions, it will react with strong acids and bases.
- When asbestos material is removed from a building, it can be washed in a hot base solution followed by acid to dissolve the fibers.
- If this process is used on a metal pipe, for example, the metal pipe can then be reused or recycled.
- The solution of dissolved asbestos fibers can be melted and vitrified to create glass or ceramic material. The extremely high temperatures used in this process destroy the asbestos fibers.
- As glass or ceramics, the asbestos no longer presents any danger. The material can be used or recycled.
Other studies have tried different methods of abating and recycling asbestos safely, including techniques to change the structure of asbestos fibers. While changing the fiber structure may not render them harmless, it does prevent them from becoming airborne.
As recycling becomes a priority, these recycling techniques should become more widespread. Researchers may also develop more techniques for recycling asbestos materials in the future.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.