The Environmental Impacts of Asbestos

Guide to the Environmental Impacts of Asbestos: It’s common knowledge that exposure to asbestos can cause multiple negative health effects in people, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. What’s less known is how asbestos can pollute the air, water, soil, and settle on different objects. Asbestos was heavily used in a variety of construction materials from the 1930s through the 1970s, making the overall environmental risk substantial.

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What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a grouping of six different types of minerals that are made of heat-resistant fibres. These minerals are naturally occurring, and were used for a long period of time in construction materials and other products around the world. Before the dangers of asbestos exposure was known, its use was widespread. Over the past 40 years, many government entities have either banned or regulated the use of asbestos. But it still remains unregulated in some countries.

What was asbestos used in?

Since asbestos fibres are flexible, strong and durable, they have been used in thousands of consumer and industrial products. The amount of asbestos in these products varied, depending on the product and its intended use. Homes built before 1977 were more likely to feature materials that contained asbestos.

The following is a number of products and materials that were manufactured with asbestos at some point:

  • Ceiling and floor tiles
  • Electrical insulation
  • Brake linings
  • Protective clothing
  • Cement piping
  • Plastics

Environmental exposure to asbestos

Environmental exposure to asbestos is less common than exposure via work or home renovation, but still can happen often. Almost everyone has inhaled very small amounts of asbestos from the environment, but these smaller amounts are unlikely to cause any adverse health effects.

Does asbestos occur naturally in the environment?

asbestos in the environment, Guide to the Environmental Impacts of Asbestos

Asbestos is found in the environment, naturally forming underground, in certain types of rocks usually found close to fault zones. The asbestos veins in these rocks may be visible, looking like white or yellow lines that cut through the rock. 

Asbestos fibres are also naturally occuring in soil that overlays rocks containing asbestos, although the prevalence of asbestos in these soils is currently unknown. Rocks that contain asbestos are usually buried too deep to be considered a threat, although human activity — such as mining or breaking the rocks — can release these fibres into the environment.

Air pollution

Air pollution is a large concern when it comes to asbestos, since the tiny fibres are prone to crumbling and breaking up easily. These fibres are then released into the air, where they can potentially remain suspended in the air for hours. Once these fibres are airborne, they are likely to settle into the environment or be inhaled by humans or animals.

Water pollution

Many pipes and drainage systems were once reinforced with asbestos. The use of these construction materials has led to the risk of water contamination. Asbestos fibres deteriorate over time, and this deterioration is only made quicker by water flow.

Because asbestos fibres are slow to break down, they will stay in a water system for an extended period of time. The spread of these fibres occurs between connected lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water due to this slow breakdown.

Soil pollution

As stated previously, asbestos fibres are found naturally in soil that covers rocks containing these fibres. However, asbestos that is found in soil was most likely placed there by human activity. Construction, mining and other activities can release asbestos fibres into the air. These fibres then resettle in the top layer of the soil, and can be blown away by wind with loose soil and travel great distances.

Another large source of asbestos soil contamination is illegal dumping of construction materials. Many countries have established regulations for the handling and disposal of asbestos materials, but these regulations are not always followed or enforced.

Effects of asbestos pollution on wildlife

The health effects of asbestos exposure for wildlife are largely the same as in humans. According to a number of studies, asbestos fibres can have the same negative health effects on animals, these being:

  • Respiratory issues
  • Mesothelioma/lung cancer
  • Breathlessness
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting

One study from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital reviewed the cases of six dogs that were diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and found evidence of asbestos in three of the dogs. Normally wildlife is exposed to asbestos via the dumping or disposal of asbestos, or from repeated exposure from living near construction workshops or industrial sites that used asbestos materials.

Solutions to environmental asbestos exposure

tips for limiting exposure, Guide to the Environmental Impacts of Asbestos

To limit exposure and the releasing of harmful asbestos fibres into the environment, it’s important to first identify materials that contain asbestos. Unless a material is labelled it can be difficult to tell if it contains asbestos. Trained and accredited asbestos professionals should inspect any buildings or materials that are suspected to contain asbestos.

Asbestos-containing materials that have not been damaged or disturbed pose little to no health risk, as material that is in good condition will not release any fibres. 

There are a number of things anyone can do to reduce the risk of environmental asbestos exposure, including:

  • Wetting the ground before gardening or outdoor activities
  • Driving slowly on unpaved roads
  • Supporting regulation to reduce construction dust levels
  • Using asbestos-free landscaping materials or soil
  • Staying on paved trails where asbestos may be present

Although asbestos is normally only discussed in the context of how it can affect humans, it’s important to remember that asbestos is a threat to more than just people. Because of human asbestos use, asbestos fibres are widely dispersed in the environment and are having a negative impact on it. Air, water and soil pollution are all areas of concern when it comes to asbestos in the environment, even though it is a naturally occurring material.

If you or someone you know has been exposed or possibly exposed to asbestos,’s exposure guide can help you with the next steps you should take.

Further reading