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Asbestos exposure is the leading risk factor for mesothelioma and other illnesses. For hundreds of years, his natural mineral was used extensively in everything from ship insulation to roofing to automotive parts. Asbestos has unique properties that make it useful in a variety of industries, including natural resistance to heat, fire, electricity, and chemical reactions.
Since asbestos was used so extensively, and we now know it can make people sick, it is important to regulate and monitor its use, disposal, and recycling. Although government regulations restrict its use, asbestos has not been completely banned. Additionally, older buildings often contain asbestos that needs to be removed safely. Thanks to advances in research, asbestos recycling may be a possibility.
Asbestos and Health
Asbestos is an abundant natural mineral that is easily mined from the earth. Although this substance has long been used by humans, 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 prior to the 1970s.These buildings were erected before regulations were placed 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, it must be used in a way that is safe. There are limitations to how and where it may be used in new construction. However, there are still many older buildings and ships that contain asbestos materials. This asbestos must be contained or safely removed and disposed of.
Regulations for the Disposal of Asbestos
Because older buildings often contain asbestos, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed regulations for disposal of materials as well as limits for asbestos air pollution. For example, if a building is demolished, first it must be inspected. Any asbestos must be reported 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 of any material is often considered a better option than dumping in a landfill. However, 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 take asbestos.
Once it arrives at the landfill, asbestos is left in a special area designated for asbestos only. The landfill then 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, and even then, it is not foolproof. There is always a possibility it could contaminate 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 on recycling the material as a safe and environmentally-friendly alternative.
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 a material containing asbestos 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 a 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 prevents them from becoming airborne.
As recycling becomes a priority, these recycling techniques should become more widespread. Researcher may also develop more techniques for recycling asbestos materials in the future.
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.