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Asbestos in Buildings

Is asbestos in buildings dangerous?

The Ban Asbestos Group is... greatly alarmed by the presence of asbestos in buildings, and calls for the immediate and universal removal of all asbestos present in buildings.

Reference: no references in peer-reviewed scientific journals provided.

THE FACTS: Intact, undisturbed materials generally do not pose a health risk. Management, not removal, is the preferred course of action.

The "asbestos in buildings problem" had become an issue of great concern in the 80s, especially in the U.S.A., where literally billions of dollars were spent annually in a rush to remove asbestos from public buildings. After years of what some regarded as a gross misallocation of public resources, scientists and professional organizations began denouncing the practice.

"Those who demand the removal and substitution of all asbestos, irrespective of fibre type or level of contamination, should note that removal can actually increase cumulative doses to both workers and occupants, and that substitutes for asbestos may be less innocuous than has generally been assumed. The campaign to eliminate all asbestos on the grounds that 'one fibre can kill', besides being a cost-benefit absurdity, may thus actually increase the risk."(1)

"It is better that society uses its limited financial resources in learning how to live safely with this valuable material than in attempting to remove it totally from the environment."(2)

The U.S. Congress jointly funded a research project on the subject, which culminated in the publication of the Health Effects Institute - Asbestos Research report in 1991. In the executive summary, it is stated: "Although public concern over asbestos in buildings has focused primarily on potential risk to general building occupants, there does not appear to be sufficient justification on grounds of risk to the health of general occupants for arbitrarily removing intact ACM (asbestos-containing material) from well-maintained buildings."(3)

In 1984, the Ontario Royal Commission on Asbestos (ORCA) had also examined the issue of the presence of asbestos in buildings, and had come to the following conclusion: "We conclude that the air in buildings with sprayed asbestos-containing insulation usually averages less than the equivalent of an optical fibre count of 0.001 f/cc, and the highest readings would rarely exceed 0.01 f/cc. At this level, we deem the risk, which asbestos poses to building occupants to be insignificant; and, therefore, find that asbestos in building air will almost never pose a health hazard to building occupants."(4)

Eventually, in the Foreword of its 1991 updated brochure entitled "Managing Asbestos in Place", the EPA indicates: "Removal is often not a building owner's best course of action to reduce asbestos exposure. In fact, improper removal can create a dangerous situation where none previously existed."(5)

The EPA goes on to say, "Intact and undisturbed materials do not pose a health risk ...when asbestos- containing material (ACM) is properly managed, release of asbestos fibre into the air is prevented or minimized, and the risk of asbestos-related disease can be reduced to a negligible level.

The following table may help to put the relative risks of asbestos in buildings and the general environment into perspective:

Comparative Risk Estimates*
Lifetime increases in cancer risk
(premature deaths per 10,000)

· Occupants of buildings (with asbestos-containing materials) : 0.04

· Indoor radon : 2 to 5

· Environmental tobacco smoke : 5 to 20

· Other lifetime risks:

•  being struck by lightning : 0.3

•  eating one charcoal steak/week : 0.1

•  smoking : 2190

*Source: Asbestos in Public and Commercial Buildings: A Literature Review and Synthesis
of Current Knowledge, Health Effects Institute-Asbestos Research, 1991


1. Peto, J. (1989) WHO / IARC Sci. Pub. No. 90, pp: 457-470
2. American Medical Association, Report by the Council on Scientific Affairs (1991) Amer. J. Med Assoc. 266: 296-297
3. Health Effects - Asbestos Research Report (1991) "Asbestos in Public and Commercial Buildings", Cambridge, MA, U. S.A.
4. Ontario Royal Commission on Asbestos (1984) p. 14
5. "Managing Asbestos In Place", U.S. EPA 20T-2003 (1991)