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Angela Wu - 2019 Winner

Angela Wu graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park as a Banneker Key Scholar and a member of the Honors College. She studied life sciences and sociology with a focus on social psychology. She is particularly interested in research and has previously published neurosurgical and ophthalmological papers with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Angela will be pursuing her Juris Doctor degree at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. As a law student, she hopes to dedicate time to her school’s pro bono projects and become actively involved in the Philadelphia community.

What are some common and unexpected ways a person can be exposed to asbestos?

In the 20th century, asbestos was widely used to construct a variety of manufactured goods. It was famous for its fiber strength and heat resistance, and these were both attributes that made asbestos ideal in everything from ceiling tiles and automobile parts to paper products and fabrics (“Learn About Asbestos”). Today, however, asbestos is famous for its more sinister side effects. Exposure to asbestos is now known to be highly hazardous. It has led to thousands of cases of lung cancer and mesothelioma in the United States alone, and exposure can also cause a multitude of other dangerous, non-cancerous diseases (“Learn About Asbestos”). To preserve both public and personal health, it is therefore critical that citizens in the United States remain aware of both common and unexpected ways asbestos exposure can occur.

When asbestos-containing material is disturbed, hazardous fibers are released into the air, and these particles can then subsequently be inhaled. Several factors, such as particle dosage, fiber form, and an individual’s general health, determine how one may be harmed upon asbestos exposure, but workers in certain occupations should be particularly conscientious about their risk for asbestos-related diseases (“Public Health Statement for Asbestos”). This is especially true when one’s occupation necessitates regular proximity to asbestos-containing products. Some common examples of high-risk occupations include miners, plumbers, construction workers, and electricians (“Asbestos Facts and Statistics”). A complete list of high-risk occupations can be found here: https://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/statistics-facts/.

However, occupational asbestos exposure is not limited to blue-collar jobs that traditionally require direct handling of asbestos products. Workers in a variety of sectors can potentially be exposed to airborne asbestos particles. These particles are too small to be seen with the naked eye, and many old but otherwise unassuming consumer products may also release these particles (“Asbestos”). Engineers in supervisory roles on construction sites, for example, are at risk of asbestos exposure, as are hairdressers who use particular models of hair dryers (“Occupational Asbestos Exposure”). Firefighters are also twice as likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than the average person due partially to asbestos exposure when fires erupt in older buildings (“Occupational Asbestos Exposure”). U.S. Navy ships were likewise commonly built with asbestos-containing products prior to 1980 (“Asbestos Exposure on Navy Ships”). Current and former Navy personnel may, therefore, be at risk for exposure to this carcinogen. Ultimately, any citizen that works inside an older building or structure, be it a school, library, or government facility, should be vigilant about asbestos-containing materials. This is of particular importance during periods of workplace maintenance or renovation.

Occupational hazards can commonly lead to asbestos exposure, but exposure can also occur at home. Many common household materials can contain asbestos, especially in homes built before stricter asbestos regulations were enacted in the late 1900s (“Public Health Statement for Asbestos”). Homeowners starting “do-it-yourself” projects in old homes should be wary of disturbing asbestos-containing materials. These materials can be found in insulation, drywall, tiles, or pipes, and attempting to remove or replace these items may release asbestos into the air (“Guide to Asbestos in the Home”). Car owners can likewise endanger themselves when personally attempting to fix or maintain brakes, as some older or foreign brake components contain asbestos (“Guide to Asbestos in the Home”).

Second-hand asbestos exposure is also hazardous and may elicit the same detrimental health consequences as first-hand exposure (Warren). Those that interact with people from high-risk backgrounds may, therefore, be themselves at risk, even though their jobs or lifestyles are neither traditionally nor inherently considered high-risk for exposure. Because of the fibrous nature of asbestos, hazardous particles can easily attach to somebody’s clothing, hair, or skin (“Secondary Asbestos Exposure”). These particles can then be unwittingly transferred to others. For example, people with family members, significant others, or friends who work in construction may be at risk of asbestos-related disease. This is because physical contact through hugs or handshakes can easily transfer asbestos fibers, and fibers can also become airborne through innocuous actions like attempting to wash an asbestos-contaminated article of clothing (“Secondary Asbestos Exposure”). In fact, the proper procedure to handle asbestos-contaminated clothing is to place it into a watertight container, label it as asbestos waste, then send it to a landfill or special facility (“Secondary Asbestos Exposure”). More information on secondary asbestos exposure can be found here: https://vogelzanglaw.com/news/asbestos-updates/secondary-asbestos-exposure-causes-danger-at-home/

Traces of asbestos can also be found in drinking water or food. When food is prepared in environments with airborne asbestos particles, it can easily be contaminated. The asbestos in the contaminated food can then subsequently be inhaled or orally consumed by a customer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also confirmed that cement pipe degradation over time causes asbestos to be a contaminant in U.S. drinking water (Lee). Asbestos, as a group of naturally occurring minerals, can additionally exist underground and erode into water mains or reservoirs (Lee). However, most sources of drinking water in the United States have less than a million fibers per liter, which is well within the acceptable toxicity range (“Public Health Statement for Asbestos”). Regardless, U.S. water samples have been occasionally produced with 10-300 million asbestos fibers per liter, so residents in high-risk areas may need to be attentive to changes in water quality (“Public Health Statement for Asbestos”). Further information about evaluating contaminants in drinking water can be found here: https://www.epa.gov/dwstandardsregulations Finally, people traveling to foreign countries for work or pleasure should be aware of their host country’s policies concerning asbestos. Asbestos is still commonly mined and used in construction around the world, and unexpected exposure to asbestos may occur if one is staying in a foreign country for an extended period of time. For example, India uses approximately 300,000 metric tons of asbestos per year for construction and other purposes, and other major consumers of asbestos include Russia, China, and Brazil (“Asbestos is Big Business Abroad”). People that travel often or are involved in organizations like the military or Engineers Without Borders should, therefore, be cognizant about their potential exposure to contaminants.

Asbestos regulations proliferated in the late 1900s with agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration all acting to mitigate asbestos risks in the United States (“Public Health Statement for Asbestos”). For some people, however, these restrictions came too late to prevent irreparable harm, as asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma may develop years after initial exposure. Additionally, many Americans are still at risk of asbestos exposure every day despite the numerous regulations currently in place. To preserve the health of individuals, families, and communities overall, it is therefore imperative that citizens remain aware of the copious ways they may be exposed to this potentially dangerous substance in their lives.

“Asbestos.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration, http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/.
“Asbestos Exposure on Navy Ships.” Mesothelioma Center – Vital Services for Cancer Patients & Families, http://www.asbestos.com/navy/ships/.
“Asbestos Facts and Statistics.” Mesothelioma Center – Vital Services for Cancer Patients & Families, http://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/statistics-facts/.
“Asbestos Is Big Business Abroad.” BAN Asbestos Now, 23 Dec. 2014, http://www.banasbestosnow.com/asbestos-is-big-business-abroad/.
“Guide to Asbestos in the Home.” Mesothelioma Center – Vital Services for Cancer Patients & Families, http://www.asbestos.com/exposure/home/.
“Learn About Asbestos.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 17 Sept. 2018, http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/learn-about-asbestos.
Lee, Adam. “Is the Asbestos in Our Drinking Water Dangerous?” Mesothelioma Center – Vital Services for Cancer Patients & Families, 13 Dec. 2017, http://www.asbestos.com/blog/2014/12/31/asbestos-in-drinking-water/.
“Occupational Asbestos Exposure.” Mesothelioma Asbestos Awareness Center, 10 July 2019, http://www.mesotheliomadiagnosis.com/asbestos/occupational-exposure/.
“Public Health Statement for Asbestos.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Jan. 2015, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=28&tid=4.
“Secondary Asbestos Exposure: Who’s at Risk, How It Occurs & Lawsuits.” Mesothelioma Center – Vital Services for Cancer Patients & Families, http://www.asbestos.com/exposure/secondary/.
Cassity, Alison. “Secondary Asbestos Exposure Causes Danger at Home.” Vogelzang Law, 8 July 2019, vogelzanglaw.com/news/asbestos-updates/secondary-asbestos-exposure-causes-danger-at-home/.

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