Construction tradesmen and firefighters can be exposed to asbestos while working in old homes and structures built with contaminated materials. Exposure can happen during a renovation, demolition or disaster response.
When old buildings are destroyed without safety precautions, airborne asbestos fibers can contaminate the surrounding area.
When the asbestos industry was booming, families of workers were also at great risk. Workers often came home with asbestos fibers on their hair, work clothes and tools — exposing family members to the toxic substance and increasing their risk for related diseases.
In 1995, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) presented a study of “Workers’ Home Contamination” to Congress.
They concluded “families of asbestos-exposed workers have been at increased risk of pleural, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma, lung cancer, cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, and nonmalignant pleural and parenchymal abnormalities as well as asbestosis.”
Because asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, people living near large deposits in hilly or mountainous regions also face possible exposure. Minimal amounts of the mineral can fill the air in these regions, but environmental exposure is most dangerous near former asbestos mines.
Two of the most recognized cities for asbestos exposure problems are Libby, Montana, and El Dorado Hills, California.
Libby was home to a vermiculite mine contaminated by naturally occurring asbestos. The mine, controlled by W.R. Grace & Company and operated from 1923 to 1990, is responsible for hundreds of asbestos-related deaths.
In June 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared a public health emergency in Libby.
In El Dorado Hills, the EPA said asbestos levels were “of concern,” according to the agency’s report on the 400-plus air samples gathered there in 2004.
Although asbestos mines no longer operate in the U.S., people living near defunct mines continue to develop mesothelioma.
In February 2015, reports of exposure to naturally occurring asbestos in southern Nevada made national headlines. Geologists found asbestos in 150 soil samples from Nevada and Arizona, and epidemiology research showed an increased incidence of mesothelioma in the area sampled.
Geologists suspect natural erosion and commercial development of asbestos-contaminated land sent asbestos fibers airborne.
Geological studies show the asbestos in Nevada is much like the asbestos found in Libby. Officials in Nevada responded by taking measures to protect workers on projects that involve areas contaminated with asbestos.
Workers were exposed to the harmful natural mineral while on the job. Others, including workers’ family members, faced secondary exposure at home. Environmental exposure happened in communities that mined or processed asbestos.
Some asbestos products remain in old structures and are usually harmless — as long as they’re not disturbed. Firefighters, contractors, demolition workers, electricians and plumbers are at high risk of exposure to asbestos in old buildings.