Asbestos, the natural mineral that is the leading risk factor for mesothelioma and other illnesses, has been used for hundreds of years. From the early 1900s on it was used extensively in everything from ship insulation to roofing to automotive parts. With its unique properties of being able to resist fire, heat, electricity, and most chemical reactions, asbestos has been a useful material in construction and other industries.
Since asbestos has been used so extensively, and we now know that it can make people sick, it’s important to regulate and monitor how it’s used, disposed of, and even recycled. The government has regulated and limited the use of asbestos, but it has not been completely banned. Additionally, there are many older buildings with asbestos that needs to be safely removed. Thanks to advances in research, recycling of the material may be a possibility.
Asbestos and Health
Asbestos is a natural mineral that is abundant and that can be fairly easily mined from the earth. It has been in use for a long period of human history, but only on a large scale in the last century. It is now being used much less because of awareness of how it impacts human health. Asbestos fibers, when inhaled, get lodged in tissues in the body and cause damage.
Most often this occurs in the lungs, the lining of the lungs, and other tissues of the chest cavity, although the fibers may 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 tissue lining the lungs and chest.
Where Asbestos Can Be Found Today
Asbestos is not used as often as it was in the past, but it is still used in many applications and it still exists in older buildings, those built before regulations were put in place in the 1970s. In buildings, asbestos may be found in roofing and flooring materials, siding, and extensively in insulation. In ships it is used in insulation, gaskets, and other components. In vehicles, asbestos is used in clutches and brakes.
Because asbestos is so 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, but there are still many older buildings and ships that contain asbestos materials that must be contained, or removed and disposed of, and it must be done safely.
Regulations for the Disposal of Asbestos
Because older buildings often contain asbestos that could become airborne and cause illness, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed regulations for how to dispose of it and for limiting its pollution of the air. If a building is to be demolished, for instance, it must first be inspected for the presence of asbestos. 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 the better option over disposal in a landfill, but recycling of hazardous materials is not straightforward. Most asbestos is placed in landfills, although this is not a simple matter either. Asbestos-containing materials must first be wetted to prevent fibers from being released into the air, and then it has to be sealed in special containers and clearly labeled. From there the material can only be taken to certain landfills, those licensed to take asbestos.
At the landfill the asbestos is left in a special area that is designated for asbestos only. The landfill then has the responsibility for ensuring that there are no leaks or emissions from the asbestos over time and that the materials do not get compacted. There are issues with disposing of asbestos in a landfill and it requires a lot of resources to make it safe. Even then it is not foolproof, and there is always a possibility that it could contaminate the ground or the air.
A way to recycle asbestos or to recycle the materials in or on which the asbestos is found could potentially save money and time, while also providing a safer way to get rid of the harmful mineral. As the large amount of space needed in landfills for disposing of asbestos begins to fill up, researchers have been working on ways to use recycling as a safe and environmentally-friendly alternative.
How to Recycle Asbestos
With landfill space at a premium, researchers have so far developed at least one way in which asbestos being removed from old buildings can be recycled. 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, for example a metal pipe with adhered asbestos, it can be washed in a hot solution of base and then acid to dissolve the fibers. The metal pipe can then be reused or recycled.
The solution of dissolved asbestos fibers can then 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 or harm to anyone handling it. The material can be used or recycled.
Other studies have tried different methods of abating and recycling asbestos safely, including using techniques to actually change the structures of the asbestos fibers. Doing so may not render the fibers harmless, but it prevents them from becoming airborne where they can do harm to people.
As recycling becomes more of a priority, both to save materials for reuse and to save on landfill space, these techniques for recycling asbestos-containing materials should become more widespread. There may also be more techniques developed as researchers continue to investigate new methods of recycling.
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