Air is essential for all living organisms, and the healthier the air, the more likely the organism will survive and grow. Ensuring the air you breathe is safe can also prevent a wide range of adverse side effects and illnesses.
One mineral that can become airborne and cause many health problems is asbestos.
Can air purifiers remove asbestos? Yes, air purifiers can remove asbestos as long as they have the right particle size efficiency. HEPA and similarly sized filters can prevent the microfibers of asbestos from getting through. Still, it is advisable to get professional help when dealing with asbestos.
In this article, we’ll discuss the many risks involved with asbestos while discussing what your air purifier will need in order to filter out asbestos. We will also discuss ways you can test for asbestos as well as associated regulations.
Asbestos Risks and Dangers
The problem with this mineral is also the reason it was so useful in construction; it is exceptionally resilient to the environment. This resistance means that once the fibers are airborne and out and about, it is tough for them to go away on their own.
The small size of the fibers allows asbestos particles to remain airborne for long periods. If swept up in the wind, the particles can travel very long distances as well (source).
Throughout this process, they will rarely break down and will remain dangerous for a long while once significantly disturbed.
The symptoms and related diseases of asbestos are dangerous. Inhalation creates the biggest risk when dealing with asbestos, while ingestion and exposure to the skin can also be dangerous, although this usually requires significantly higher doses.
The truth is that, unlike most other respiratory illnesses, symptoms associated with asbestos usually take a while to manifest. It often takes upwards of a decade for these issues to manifest (source).
This low visibility can make it challenging to identify where the exposure occurred, but symptoms should still be known and looked out for.
- Shortness of breath and a dry cough
- Loss of appetite and associated weight loss
- Chest pains
- Extremities, like toes and fingers swelling or clubbing
Should you experience a combination of these symptoms, it is advisable to go see a doctor and ensure you aren’t dealing with an asbestos-related disease.
The most commonly associated disease of asbestos exposure is cancer. While scientists have linked it with a variety of possible cancers, the most often seen is lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is directly related to asbestos and is incredibly deadly. Mesothelioma manifests itself as a tumor in the lining of the lungs, heart, or other organs.
Asbestosis is a lung disease caused by asbestos inhalation and may lead to mesothelioma. It is less deadly than the cancers but can still cause significant damage to the lungs.
Beyond this, there are a wide variety of other health problems linked to asbestos in some capacity. The primary drivers in causing these long-term diseases are the degree of exposure and the duration.
This list of health issues is why it should be taken so seriously and most often requires professional assistance to ensure everyone’s safety.
Asbestos is still clearly a genuine risk, even though governments around the world have largely banned it. Due to its incredible utility, it rapidly spread throughout modern civilization and into most people’s lives.
Now we must learn to protect ourselves from the dangers of our past actions.
How Can Air Purifiers Remove Asbestos?
By taking care of the air you breathe, you are protecting yourself from a whole slew of potential health hazards, of which asbestos is most certainly on the list. The benefit of modern-day technology is that we have tools that can help us.
Asbestos fibers that have entered the air may be invisible to our eyes, but a fine enough filtration system can still catch them. What matters most when it comes to catching these fibers is the efficiency at which the filter can stop all of them.
This requirement, unfortunately, excludes the majority of filtration systems, including the likes of water-based air purifiers that simply cannot remove the fine particles associated with asbestos. These other filters often have a different focus for the air they’re purifying.
There is the minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) that ranks the effectiveness of these filters in catching small particulates (source). It ranges from 1 to 20, with only the latter end able to reliably filter asbestos out of the air.
Filters from MERV 17 and up are the ones capable of this procedure.
It is at this range of MERV and particulate size that the high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters come into play. These specially-designed filters handle particulates of pretty much any size and at an extremely high rate of efficiency.
The way these mechanical filters do this is through a fine mesh that has narrow slits in it. These gaps are sometimes larger than the particles they are trying to catch but exploit several mechanisms to capture the smaller ones too (source).
For the larger particles, there are the standard mechanisms of interception and impaction. The former occurs when the particle follows the airflow and collides with a nearby fiber from the filter’s mesh.
The latter happens when the particles are too big to follow the airflow, and their inertia impacts them into the fibers of the mesh directly.
For the smaller particles, and notably the smallest asbestos particles, the mechanism utilized in these filters is called diffusion. Diffusion works through the principle of Brownian motion, which is the random movement of tiny particles through a gas or liquid.
These particles collide with the air molecules and take a random path through the filter until they come into contact with the mesh.
The diffusion process results in impaction and interception for particles that are smaller than the slits in the mesh. When combined, these mechanisms can filter out most of the particulates in the air.
How to Use the Filters
You can find most of these HEPA filters on specific vacuum cleaners and respirators. Sometimes, they are applied to larger ventilation systems like HVAC, but they can put a significant strain on the system by limiting airflow.
On top of this, the diffusion mechanism mentioned above works best at lower airflow.
For the most part, you should use this filter system in conjunction with a deliberate and informed asbestos removal process. If you suspect serious contamination, then a couple of filters and a vacuum will not be a reliable defense.
This is especially true if the area in question has been significantly disturbed.
If you live in an area that has a higher risk of asbestos exposure, then the EPA recommends that you couple a HEPA vacuum with a few other cleaning methods to ward off as much as possible.
Such methods include wet cleaning and watering, which attempts to pin down the fibers that may be in the air or on the surface of the ground and prevent them from getting airborne.
Close your windows when possible and during excessive winds. Wet clean outside mats and patios that might let asbestos into the house. Water the outside soil if you plan on gardening or have children or animals that might disturb it.
Also, remember to clean and replace filters regularly as they will become blocked up with particles.
Other Ways to Remove Asbestos
Depending on the scale of asbestos contamination, most homeowners strongly advise you to get the professionals involved. Not only will they be able to help identify the source of the asbestos, but they will also take samples from the air and surrounding area to determine the risks.
The EPA has a few guidelines to keep in mind when dealing with an asbestos problem professionally. The first is whether or not the aim of the job is repair or removal.
Repair generally involves covering up the areas contaminated with asbestos and sealing it away from any exposure to the air. This can be a useful method if the area in question is relatively undisturbed and can remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Of course, sometimes removal is the only option, especially if you have large-scale construction planned. In this case, the professionals will isolate the contaminated area and delicately extract it.
There is an increased risk with removal, and those involved must make sure they do it carefully to avoid making things worse.
Given the severity of the dangers associated with this mineral when inhaled, as well as the time delay between exposure and symptomatic effect, preventative measures are the best way to handle asbestos.
Avoiding Asbestos Contamination
According to the EPA, the most reliable way of dealing with a potential source of asbestos is to leave it undisturbed. As we have already mentioned, the risk from asbestos is only really prevalent when the fibers get airborne and can then be inhaled.
If you don’t touch these materials, then they can’t get airborne to begin with.
If the area in question is going to be disturbed anyway, either from natural erosion or from some sort of construction or demolition, then the best route is to inform professionals to come and remove it properly.
You can get inspectors to come in and properly identify if there is any asbestos involved and to what extent. Information on the extent of asbestos material will allow them to gauge how extensive the project will be and who to get involved.
Due to the dangers of this mineral, the majority of individuals consistently recommend using accredited and trained professionals.
Just What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is an interesting mineral that forms naturally in the ground. It is a silicate made up of flexible fibers that interlock with each other. This unique composition allows the substance to be heat-, electricity-, and corrosion-resistant.
According to the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), there are six legally recognized types of asbestos, and they fall into two different categories:
The difference between these two categories is primarily based around the shape of the fibers, with the latter having a curly fiber make-up (source). It is these fibers that also make this mineral very dangerous when airborne and inhaled or ingested.
Chrysotile is by far the most common form of asbestos used around the world. While there are a variety of types, it is important to note that they are all dangerous when inhaled.
Where is Asbestos Found
Due to its structure and resilience, there are a lot of industries that have used asbestos. Most prominently found in construction, asbestos adds tensile strength to materials such as concrete and plastic.
Homebuilders have used it for insulation against both heat and sound. They have also used it inside roofs, walls, and even piping. The latter can lead to exposure to drinking water, which is another dangerous way for it to enter the body.
Asbestos can also be found in ships for a similar reason, providing insulation and fireproofing for important components. Automotive companies have used it in cars for brake pads and tiles, paints, and adhesives.
A big problem with asbestos is also one of its greatest strengths: the sheer resilience of the mineral. Since it is so tough to destroy, any asbestos used in construction or elsewhere often ends up back in the environment once demolished.
On top of this, the broken-down fibers are the most dangerous to humans.
While there are many places that asbestos has been used, there is also the possibility of encountering it naturally. Being a mineral that miners extract from the ground, it can, of course, contaminate the soil and other substances alongside it.
There are also scenarios where asbestos has contaminated other materials, such as the notorious vermiculite incident.
The EPA reported that a mine near Libby, Montana — where miners extracted the majority of vermiculite — was also home to a deposit of asbestos.
This asbestos likely contaminated the vermiculite, which locals and others then used in construction from 1919 to 1990.
Overall, this mineral has had a significant impact on a wide range of industries and requires careful monitoring.
How Asbestos Enters the Air
The most significant danger from asbestos occurs when it enters the air. The small fibers that make up its structure can break loose and float through the air, invisible to the naked eye (source).
It is this stage that it becomes hazardous because you can quickly and unwittingly inhale it.
Becoming airborne can happen when asbestos is sufficiently disturbed, which is most likely to occur during construction or demolition where asbestos is present. This activity inherently involves the breakdown of components containing it.
If you believe there may be asbestos in the materials, then it is strongly advised to get professionals to help.
Apart from intentional damage, there is also the possibility that asbestos can spread into the air from natural degradation.
When old buildings decline, there is an increased chance that the materials used may be exposed to the air. Significant airflow or moisture can aggravate this.
After demolition, if the crew has not adequately dealt with asbestos, it can redistribute into the environment. This can lead to contamination of the soil and further the likelihood of exposure.
Testing for Asbestos
The only time you need to really test for asbestos is if you are undertaking construction or renovation on a building that may contain asbestos.
Additionally, if there are known deposits of asbestos in your area, or if there is significant damage to part of the building, then a test may be necessary as well.
Professional testing is highly recommended. Professionals will take samples of the materials to identify if they have asbestos in them and, if necessary, can test the air by pumping a fixed amount through a filter that will determine if asbestos is present.
Laws and Regulations around Asbestos
Fortunately, there are now several laws and regulations around asbestos that protect the greater public. We can easily break these down across the various areas they affect.
For the workplace, there is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and they have multiple regulations related to this dangerous mineral.
Most of these regulations center around the permissible exposure limit (PEL), which is the maximum degree of allowed asbestos in the available air.
There are also OSHA regulations around construction and shipyards. If any environment exposes employees to higher risks of asbestos exposure, then employers must provide the necessary protection and training for them.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the OSHA standards are not adequate for the general public as their exposure is greater than the average workday exposure.
The EPA governs the regulations over water contamination to the public as well as construction guidelines and restrictions.
For schools, there is the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which governs the regular inspections, testing, and general maintenance against asbestos contamination.
Asbestos is clearly a dangerous contaminant that can cause significant damage if left unchecked. Fortunately, we are far more aware of these dangers now then we were in the past, and we can take steps to mitigate the risks from this substance.
Through the use of specially designed filters like HEPA, we can extract these microfibers from the air. The important thing is to be aware of the risks and from where they can stem so that you know exactly when to get the professionals and necessary tools involved.