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Asbestos is a hazard when it becomes airborne.

The light, fine, and virtually indestructible fibers wreck havoc on the human body. Free asbestos fibers in the air are easily inhaled into the lungs, and are quite difficult to expel. The lungs try to repair the tiny irritations, which can result in scarring. Scarred lung tissue cannot readily absorb oxygen from the air or easily pass back carbon dioxide. As a result of this process, asbestosis can develop, and may even turn into cancer.

Asbestos exposure can also cause cancer, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, and has been linked to gastrointestinal and colon cancer, as well as a slew of other cancers. Mesothelioma most commonly affects of the lining of the lungs, known as pleural mesothelioma. This cancer can also affect the abdominal cavity (peritoneal), the lining of the heart (pericardial), and in very rare cases, the testes.

Some of the highest incidences of mesothelioma have not been from adults who worked with asbestos, but among their children. Children are more susceptible to its effects than adults and were often exposed to asbestos since it was carried home on parents' work clothes. This is why there is so much concern about asbestos-containing materials (ACM) in school buildings. Many institutions of higher learning have published surveys of ACM in their buildings, which include plans to manage and prevent further exposure, plans to remove it, and programs to educate local populations about the dangers of disturbing ACM. Some universities even maintain their own accredited asbestos testing labs and abatement crews. If you are at risk for these illnesses because high levels of asbestos exposure, have regular medical checkups.

If asbestos in the home becomes damaged, asbestos fibers may be released. For example, when asbestos insulation around boilers and pipes or furnaces and ducts deteriorates, it may release asbestos fibers. Ceilings with acoustic treatments containing asbestos may release fibers when they are drilled or patched. If the ceilings are in poor condition, air movement from ceiling fans and opening and closing draperies may spread asbestos dust.

Floor tiles that contain asbestos are very common in older homes. Typically they were 9 inch square tiles, although there are hundreds of styles of 12 inch square tiles that also contain asbestos. Additionally, the mastic (or glue) used to adhere the tiles to the substrate can contain asbestos. If these tiles become loosened by water damage or flooding, they can crack and release asbestos fibers.

Exterior ACM like siding or roofing shingles (commonly referred to as "transite") pose a potential hazard only when disturbed, as in the case of a removal and replacement project. Placing new exterior materials over existing asbestos-containing materials is not recommended. Fastening the new material to the existing ACM typically causes the ACM to break and fall, causing a fiber release.

Vermiculite is a product that normally does not contain asbestos. However, over 70% of the vermiculite that was sold in the U.S. between 1919 and 1990 came from a mine located in Libby, Montana. This particular mine was contaminated with asbestos.  If you have vermiculite in your attic or walls, the U.S. EPA states that you should "assume the vermiculite contains asbestos and do not disturb it." They also recommend to "hire a professional asbestos contractor if you plan to remodel or conduct renovations that would disturb the vermiculite in your attic or walls to make sure the material is safely handled and / or removed."

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