You’ve probably already heard of the dangers asbestos poses to human health. It is well documented that the people exposed to this once commonly-used carcinogen may develop cancer and other adverse health conditions. However, many people also believe asbestos is only a danger to those who were exposed to it at work before it was banned. In actuality, the risks of asbestos are much more far-reaching.

The unique behavior of asbestos in the environment makes it a potential danger to everyone. To understand how to keep yourself and your community healthy, you first need to understand the environmental impacts of asbestos.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a type of naturally-occurring, silicon-based mineral found in geological formations around the world. Though there are several varieties of different names, they are grouped together and named after the largest mine of the mineral, which was located in the Canadian town of Asbestos.

Asbestos has long been used as a component in construction materials and industrial products. It was initially deemed useful for its flame-resistant properties, but it came with pretty substantial health risks. Mesothelioma — a type of severe cancer affecting the chest cavity — develops when asbestos is inhaled or ingested. Because of the dangers it posed to human health, particularly for workers who came in contact with the substance, asbestos was largely banned in the West in the 1980s. However, asbestos still lingers in older construction as well as in countries like Egypt where asbestos continues to be used.

How Does Asbestos Impact the Environment?

Part of what makes asbestos so tricky — and so dangerous — is its ability to hide. In humans, symptoms of mesothelioma can appear up to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. This makes it hard for those at risk even to know something’s wrong. What many also don’t know is that asbestos is easily concealed in the environment as well.

In its undisrupted mineral form, asbestos is safe. However, the environmental problems with asbestos begin when it is crushed, ground or broken into pieces. When this happens, tiny asbestos fibers, like dust, can be swept up into the air and inhaled into the lungs, where they can do real damage. Because the human eye can’t see these fibers, they’re hard to avoid.

Asbestos becomes an even bigger problem in the environment when it travels outside of its original point of origin. Asbestos released when tearing down old construction can move through the air, settle on the ground and enter water supplies. In this way, asbestos can disperse throughout the environment, where it can impact those who weren’t even involved with it in the first place.

Once in the environment, Asbestos continues to be dangerous. The fibers don’t biodegrade over time, so they can continue to cycle through the water and air. Because of this, asbestos can hurt humans and wildlife for a long time after it enters the environment. In places where asbestos production or use was concentrated, such as mining or factory towns, this risk is even higher — whole populations can be at risk of mesothelioma and other health concerns from environmental exposure.

What Should You Do to Keep Asbestos out of the Environment?

It’s clear that asbestos can cause damage when released into the environment. Due to its danger, persistence and ability to travel long distances, asbestos can be considered a type of pollutant. With this in mind, it is essential to consider how you can keep asbestos out of the environment as much as possible.

The best way to prevent existing asbestos from causing harm is to avoid breaking and crumbling it. If you own a house built before the 1980s, it is especially important to be mindful of this. Walls, popcorn ceilings, insulation and other materials used in the construction of older homes are particularly likely to contain asbestos.

If you’re planning to remodel or tear down any structure in your house — or if you’ve caused accidental damage — take precautions to protect yourself and the environment from asbestos that may enter the air. Contact a professional to complete the work and dispose of asbestos safely.

By understanding the behavior of asbestos in the environment and being mindful of its risks by preventing more asbestos from entering the air, you can help keep this harmful substance from hurting you and others.