It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that researchers officially established the connection between asbestos exposure and serious respiratory conditions (although evidence was presented as early as the 1920s). But by then, millions of workers had already been exposed in the workplace and in other locations. While federal asbestos exposure limits were imposed in 1972, an estimated 10,000 people in the United States continue to pass away each year from related illnesses.
Asbestos exposure occurs when someone inhales or swallows asbestos fibers. Just about everyone breathes in asbestos from the outside air, but these trace amounts rarely cause health problems. While no level of asbestos exposure is considered safe, most asbestos-related illnesses arise after heavy, repeated exposures. Harmful exposures happen in a wide range of occupational settings. Construction work and home renovations can be especially hazardous because many common building materials contain asbestos. When asbestos products start to deteriorate, or someone cuts, sands, drills or otherwise disturbs them, microscopic fibers enter the air.
For instance, the sandblasting practices of Alaska-based shipbuilding and repair facility Seward Ship’s Drydock have come under fire by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC). The ADEC issued a notice of violation to Seward Ship’s Drydock for uncontrolled “fugitive particulate emissions” at its sandblasting operations. If workers were sandblasting asbestos-containing materials such as paint, insulation or joint compounds off of a vessel, the asbestos fibers released were no longer confined to the sandblasted area and possibly inhaled by individuals elsewhere in the shipyard. Fibers can remain airborne for hours, placing anyone nearby in danger. Once inhaled, they become trapped in the respiratory tract and lungs, where they may stay for life.
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