Asbestos was once thought to be the ideal building material, but in the 1970s, it was found to be too dangerous. When asbestos fibers get into the air and are inhaled, they become trapped in the lungs, posing a serious health risk.
A variety of fibrous minerals found in rock formations worldwide make up asbestos. The strength, durability and non-combustibility of these minerals are what made asbestos so popular in construction.
Some forms aren't a big threat
If asbestos fibers are enclosed in a product or bound tight, as they are in siding and floor or ceiling tiles, there aren't known to be significant health risks. However, cutting these dense materials can cause fibers to be released.
When exposure is risky
How much asbestos is in a product is a lesser indicator of health risks than what form the asbestos is in. A friable (easily crumbled) form of amphibole asbestos was often sprayed into buildings, leading to a myriad of health problems. Today, people who renovate or maintain older buildings have to be very careful when dealing with asbestos.
Amphibole is one group of asbestos minerals that contains more iron and can resist acid and higher temperatures. Amphibole fibers stay in the lungs longer when inhaled and are more likely to cause disease and damage. The use of amphibole asbestos was banned in the 1980s.
Depending on the quantity of fibers inhaled, the length of exposure, the number of times a person is exposed, the size of the fibers inhaled and the amount of time since first exposure, asbestos can have varying health effects.
In large quantities, asbestos can cause asbestosis - scarring of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. A rare cancer of the chest or abdominal-cavity lining, known as mesothelioma, and lung cancer have also been linked to asbestos. Smokers have especially high chances of contracting lung cancer if they are exposed to asbestos.
If you think your home contains materials made from asbestos, such as flocked (popcorn) ceilings finished before the 1980s, have a qualified professional check things out before undertaking any home improvement projects, and consider having the materials removed if necessary. Asbestos is one of many health issues you don't need to be exposed to.