Asbestos and Environmental Health

Environmental health does not just pertain to the natural world – it also overlaps with human health.  There exist natural elements and materials that, on their own, would not be pollutants, but human activity has made them into dangers.  Lead and mercury are two such substances, but there is another that is responsible for approximately 4,000 deaths a year in the UK alone – asbestos.

This thread-like mineral was commonly used in building and construction materials throughout much of the twentieth century.  It did provide heat resistance and strength to the materials it was mixed with, but at a great cost.  When asbestos containing materials become worn or damaged, they allow tiny fibers to escape into the air where they can be inhaled or ingested.  Once in the body, these fibres are impossible to remove, and over time can cause symptoms of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen.  Mesothelioma usually goes undiagnosed until the cancer has already spread throughout the body, making it resistant to standard forms of treatment and nearly always fatal.

While workers in factories as well as those in the construction and shipbuilding industries are at the highest risk, the presence of asbestos in so many British homes makes it a widespread danger.  Asbestos was commonly used in cement products, textured coatings for walls and ceilings, floor tiles, sprayed coatings, insulating board, lagging, and loose insulation.  When these items remain intact, they pose little danger.  It is only when they are damaged that the asbestos fibers are released into the air.  The UK’s Health and Safety Executive maintains a website called The Hidden Killer which provides detailed information on asbestos and what to do if you suspect it may be in your home.  Always contact a professional when removing and disposing of items that may contain asbestos.

The new trend of green building takes into account this danger to health when designing new homes and office buildings.  Air quality is of great importance when it comes to making a building green, and there are a number of effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to asbestos, such as fiberglass, rock wool, and cellulose.  All of these fibrous materials can provide effective insulation without the danger of mesothelioma symptoms from exposure.  In this case, improving environmental health and human health go hand in hand.

Article written by Krista Peterson: an Environmental Health Advocate, and recent graduate from the University of Central Florida. You can contact her by email at