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What to do if you’re exposed to asbestos

Although the effects of asbestos exposure have been known for decades and the substance has been regulated for nearly as long, a recent EPA change and a steam-pipe explosion have again had people asking: What do I do if I’m exposed to asbestos?

Swallowing or inhaling asbestos fibers over an extended period can lead to asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer. The naturally occurring fibers are heat resistant, which is why they were used as insulation and as a fire retardant for many years.

Although its use has been prevented for decades, the substance still exists in many older homes and structures. It is harmless if left in its original state and becomes dangerous only when it enters the air and is breathed or swallowed.

A new EPA rule, an explosion

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new-use rule on asbestos: although all previous uses are limited by the Toxic Substances Act, the EPA will consider new uses for asbestos. This open door as some wondering if they could again unknowingly come into contact with the toxic substance.

Meanwhile, many New Yorkers unknowingly came into contact with asbestos in July when an 86-year-old steam pipe exploded, sending asbestos-laden steam into 50 nearby buildings. Although any asbestos in the air quickly dissipated, the city worried about debris caught in air-filtration systems. About 35 buildings reopened a week later, but many required examinations by asbestos-abatement companies.

What to do if you are exposed

Cancer risks are minimal with one-time exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many factors affect your risk for health problems, including:

  • How frequently you were exposed to asbestos
  • How long it has been since you were exposed to asbestos
  • How much asbestos you were exposed to
  • What size and type of asbestos you were exposed to
  • Whether you smoke, have asthma or COPD.

If you live in an old home where asbestos-containing material has become disturbed or you accidentally come into contact with asbestos like the people in New York City, experts say you should:

  • Take a shower to remove all the asbestos off your body
  • Bag all the clothes that came into contact with asbestos and wash them thoroughly
  • Avoid disturbing any material that might have asbestos on it
  • Contact a certified asbestos contractor about having the asbestos safely removed.

You should see a doctor to alleviate any concerns. The doctor may give you a CT scan or a chest X-ray or a pulmonary function test, although a doctor won’t be able to discover any damage by limited exposure to asbestos. Most problems appear years after exposure.

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