In January, a few particles of asbestos left University of Florida student Marissa Stone homeless.
Stone’s sorority house, Alpha Epsilon Phi, flooded after a hot water pipe burst in the house and was not discovered until eight days later. It resulted in nearly $25,000 in repairs, missing ceiling tiles and baseboards, a house full of industrial dryers and 10 girls homeless in the face of an asbestos scare.
The pipe broke during a school vacation, allowing the water to rise to knee level in certain areas and destroy the floors and walls. When workers removed the damaged material, asbestos particles were released into the air, posing a serious threat to some of the house’s residents.
“I remember the men working construction on the house came in yellow hazmat suits and sealed the hallway shut with plastic,” Stone said. “It was so scary, and all I could think about was how long I had been in a room with asbestos in the air.”
Asbestos is a naturally occurring toxic mineral known for its strength and resistance to heat. Before its negative effects were discovered, it was often used to help with insulation and fireproofing in cement, roof shingles, steam pipes, tiles and textured paint.
Breathing airborne asbestos can cause a variety of lung ailments, including cancer. Stone and her housemates were forced to pack their belongings and move away from the contaminated air, but they are hardly the only county residents who have been affected, according to asbestos air monitoring data.
Many old structures throughout Alachua County, some dating back to the Civil War era, were originally built with asbestos. Older buildings on the UF campus such as the Reitz Union and Newell Hall are currently being renovated, releasing disturbed asbestos fibers into the air.
In other untouched old campus buildings, the asbestos is breaking down through building materials.
“Think about how often you see them renovating buildings on the UF campus because of asbestos,” Stone said. “They used to build with it way back when because they didn’t know better, and now the buildings are deteriorating and the asbestos is releasing into the air. It makes you wonder what is safe here.”
The university’s Environmental Health and Safety policy says asbestos left in an undisturbed state is not considered hazardous. To minimize risk of exposure to students, staff and the general public, the office requires an Asbestos Project Notification Form 10 days before doing anything involving the removal of asbestos.
The office provides assistance to students and staff in buildings where asbestos is being released and ensures biannual inspections of those places to assess their conditions.
Walter Pacheco, senior content manager for Asbestos.com, said those most likely to be exposed to asbestos now are the people completing do-it-yourself home renovations.
He said asbestos in residential structures is typically found in old linoleum tiles or in insulation in walls and ceilings.
“Plumbers and those folks usually know about asbestos already because it’s a work hazard for them,” Pacheco said. “But anyone who is doing a home-renovation project, those people need to know about it and they don’t.”
Most homes today aren’t built with asbestos, he said, but homes built in the 1940s or 1950s are likely to still contain asbestos if it hasn’t been removed, he said. The asbestos doesn’t cause a problem while it’s in the walls, but once a wall is knocked down or a tile is removed, it can spread.
“If you’re doing a home renovation project, and you want to get rid of your 1940s tiles you have in your kitchen, you might just go in there and start chipping away at them, unknowing that you have stuff in them, and it may expose you to asbestos once that stuff gets in the air,” Pacheco said.
Once disturbed, the asbestos starts breaking down and seeps through ceiling materials, he said. The fibers are so small that people cannot see them.
“That’s a problem because then it will just linger in the house for a long, long time before you even know that it’s there,” he said.
Asbestos products used in insulation are usually fluffy, may darken with age and turn slightly dirty, he said.
“It’s sort of like fluffy, fibrous material that you may see when you change the air filter in the air conditioning at home,” he said.
Asbestos is not banned in the United States, but because it is hazardous, its use is minimal. Now it is most often found in old military buildings and schools or in older homes that haven’t been remodeled.
People can develop medical complications after prolonged exposure to asbestos, and often, symptoms don’t show up until 40 or 50 years after exposure, Pacheco said.
“It’s not like, let’s say I knocked down the wall in my house, and I spot what might be asbestos, so I go the next day to the doctor to see if I have any signs of asbestos exposure,” he said. “Most likely they won’t see anything because of the way tumors develop.”
After prolonged exposure to asbestos, fibers start to accumulate in the pleura, the lining covering the lungs and along the abdomen. The fibers are very sharp, needle-like and small. Once they begin to accumulate, they irritate the pleura, causing cells to go in to try to fix the problem. The cells get stuck to each other and to the asbestos, leading to tumors.
Symptoms resembling the flu such as back pain, coughing, wheezing and fatigue develop years later. Because the symptoms are so general, many physicians miss the proper diagnosis.
Each person has a different reaction to exposure depending on immune systems and genetics, Pacheco said. Men are more likely to develop asbestos-related complications than women, and women who do develop them usually get them from second-hand exposure.
Pacheco, who edits most of the content on Asbestos.com, said the site is designed to provide free resources for people seeking information about asbestos, mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related diseases.
He said many people don’t realize that asbestos could be in their homes, and some who do don’t know its exact dangers.
“Always call and ask for an asbestos inspector to check out the house before you do anything,” Pacheco said. “You should always be aware.”