District of Columbia Lead-Safe and Healthy Homes Hub

Health Topics Asbestos


What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that is commonly used in building construction materials for insulation. It has strong fiber strength and is fire and heat resistant, thus used in many materials such as roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and cement. Asbestos fibers were commonly used in construction before 1975 and many houses and buildings built before then have a high risk of having asbestos. And it is important to know that asbestos has not been banned and is still used in home construction today.

Is Asbestos Dangerous?

Asbestos can be dangerous if asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed by repair, remodeling or demolition. When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, fibers are released into the air, which can be inhaled into the lungs, resulting in severe health problems. Asbestos fibers are also hazardous because once inhaled, they stay in the body and cannot be expelled. People who work in the mining and manufacturing industries have a high risk of developing lung disease due to asbestos exposure.

What if I have asbestos in my home?

It’s not always easy to know whether you have asbestos in your home. If unsure whether or not a material contains asbestos, you might want to consider hiring a professional asbestos inspector to sample and test the material for you. Before you have your house remodeled, always find out whether asbestos-containing materials are present.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) maintains a listing of accredited asbestos laboratories under the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP). You may call NIST at (301) 975-4016.

NVLAP Accredited Laboratories for the Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) Test Method
NVLAP Accredited Laboratories for the Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) Test Method

If asbestos-containing material is becoming damaged (i.e., unraveling, frayed, breaking apart) you should immediately isolate the area (keep pets and children away from the area) and refrain from disturbing the material (either by touching it or walking on it).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises that if you think you have asbestos in your home and it is in good condition, the best thing to do is to leave it alone. If you think you have asbestos- containing materials, check the material regularly and look for signs of water damage, tears, or abrasions.

IMPORTANT: If asbestos-containing material in your home is breaking apart or fraying, you should isolate the area and refrain from disturbing the material any further. You should also hire a trained professional to take care of the situation. In the District, asbestos professionals must be licensed and certified. Ask to see proof prior to making payment or any work being conducted on your home.

What are some symptoms and effects of asbestos?

Exposure to asbestos increases your risk of developing lung disease. That risk is made worse by smoking. In general, the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the chance of developing harmful health effects. Disease symptoms may take several years to develop following exposure. If you are concerned about possible exposure, consult a physician who specializes in lung diseases (pulmonologist).

These are the primary illnesses linked to asbestos exposure:

Asbestosis -- Asbestosis is a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate lung tissues and cause the tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry, crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis.

Lung Cancer -- Lung cancer causes the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. People who work in the mining, milling, manufacturing of asbestos, and those who use asbestos and its products are more likely to develop lung cancer than the general population. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are coughing and a change in breathing. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia.

Mesothelioma -- Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin lining (membrane) of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart and almost all cases are linked to exposure to asbestos. This disease may not show up until many years after asbestos exposure.