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Mesothelioma

Work Place Exposure?

10/01/2009

Question:

I work as a personal assistant to a woman who is expanding her apartment. She had her contractor in tearing down walls, removing shower, tub, and bathroom materials, and pulling up the floors. The building inspector came in to see about compliance to the original submitted plan and discovered that a portion of the bathroom wall (where the shower hardware was located) had been removed and informed me that asbestos covered ductwork was located almost immediately behind the exposed pipes. He covered the hole up with plastic (it was about 2` x 2`).

I am concerned because he tore up the bathroom as the first step of his renovation and so that hole has been open for over a month. I`ve been in and out of the room to check on progress(expanded bedroom and bathroom--large space) and am now very concerned about what I might have breathed in. The a/c was on the whole time and there are balcony doors that were opened and closed leading into the renovated space, so air was circulating and there were vibrations from tearing down tiles and pulling up floors and knocking down walls. I now work in an area that was open to the renovated space but is now closed off. Nevertheless, dust had covered the entire floor and I was the one to clean it up with a wet mop. It doesn`t appear that the asbestos in the open wall was disturbed and the hole in the wall isn`t that large (about 2` x 2`, maybe a little larger), but I`m still very concerned about what kind of exposure I`ve had, if I should worry about the clothes I wear home, and whether I should demand my (unconcerned) employer to run an air quality test or test whatever dust can be found still in the general vicinity. My employer also knew that there was asbestos in that wall (although apparently didn`t notice the hole that exposed it) and when I told her about it she told me that it wasn`t a big deal and rolled her eyes at the inspector being concerned about getting it taped up. She won`t be agreeable to an air safety test or any other test. Please help! I`m worried sick.

Answer:

First of all, I am not an "expert" on asbestos, but I have some knowledge of general occupational and environmental exposure assessment. Without knowing exactly what the wall material contains, we can't with certainty say that you did not receive some, very small, dose of asbestos. That being said, the amount you would have received is miniscule.

Think about it this way: the problems with asbestos were discovered over a long period of history, gradually, but became more obvious after the cohort of American World War II era ship builders had about 30 to 40 years of time to develop mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer) and other diseases (similar to silicosis) as a result of their MASSIVE occupational exposures. These men were often working in confined spaces, wrapping asbestos insulation around pipes in the ships. As you can imagine, the intense levels of exposure were several orders of magnitude higher (hundreds to thousands of times higher) than the short, casual exposure you may have received.

There are asbestos fibers in the ambient air we breathe, partly because it was used in brake linings and for other common purposes for years. The concentrations are very small, however.

I seriously doubt you have anything to worry about - the risks associated with driving and riding in cars, and breathing air polluted with particulate matter are much more immediate and long-term. The asbestos in siding, flooring and shingles is not likely to be freely released into the air, so I think your brief experience with it poses very little risk for you.

The important thing is to leave the existing asbestos insulation alone, unless your employer chooses to hire a professional asbestos abatement contractor to remove it safely and completely. The less it is handled by you or anyone else at your workplace, the better.

For more information:

Go to the Mesothelioma health topic, where you can:

Response by:

J Mac Crawford, PhD, RN J Mac Crawford, PhD, RN
Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences
College of Public Health
The Ohio State University