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Written By: Camryn Keeble

Legacy Asbestos Exposure

The use of asbestos has significantly declined since its peak in the 20th century. Strict regulations and public awareness of the health risks caused by asbestos exposure have deterred corporations from relying on the mineral. Unfortunately, there is still risk of exposure to legacy asbestos, which is asbestos remaining in old buildings, automobiles or household appliances. It can be a hazard to homeowners, office workers and people who renovate old buildings.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Legacy Asbestos Exposure

  • Legacy asbestos exposure is a dangerous type of exposure because most people do not know asbestos still exists in their homes or office buildings.
  • Due to the regulations on new uses of asbestos, the main risk of exposure today is legacy asbestos.
  • Legacy asbestos can be found in many old buildings, homes, cars, materials and consumer products.

How Asbestos Becomes ‘Legacy Asbestos’

Asbestos is a natural fibrous substance found in the earth’s soil. It was once used in or around electrical wiring, construction of roof tiles and floor tiles, insulation mixtures, and other applications. It was valued for its durability, resistance to fire and heat, and flexibility.

Legacy asbestos refers to asbestos-containing materials or loose fibers still existing in old buildings, homes, appliances and much more. Legacy asbestos usually refers to the use of asbestos decades ago – maybe even as long as half a century ago – and the mineral is likely hidden in walls, floorboards, roof tiles, automobile brake linings, and elsewhere.

Any asbestos existing in homes or offices today is considered legacy asbestos since it was likely installed before 1980. It is considered a legacy element of building construction from a past era.

Since the asbestos has been there for a long time, it’s likely splintering and deteriorating. This is when asbestos is most dangerous; as fibers break apart, they can contaminate the air we breathe. If these fibers are swallowed or inhaled, they can cause cancer in the chest or abdominal cavity. Loose asbestos fibers are microscopic and nearly impossible to see.

Although there are strict regulations in place to limit the use of asbestos today, legacy asbestos remains the primary concern for exposure risks because most people are unaware it exists. It’s important to know the health risks associated with legacy asbestos and where it may be hiding.

Legacy Asbestos Health Risks

Asbestos is a cancer-causing mineral often used in various products and materials. However, it is fragile and can produce toxic dust if disturbed. Even the slightest touch can cause stray fibers to break away from the main source and contaminate the air residents and workers breathe throughout the day. Inhaling or ingesting asbestos dust can result in serious health issues, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos diseases.

Inhaling or ingesting loose asbestos fibers allows the microscopic particles to enter the body and travel to thin linings around the lungs, abdomen or heart. The fibers can become lodged in these thin linings, causing irritation, cell mutation and tumor formation.

Mesothelioma and Legacy Asbestos Exposure

The real danger with mesothelioma is the long latency period. Mesothelioma can take decades – sometimes more than 50 years – for patients to notice any significant symptoms. Unfortunately, mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer and can spread quickly. By the time a patient starts to experience noticeable symptoms, mesothelioma tumors may have formed and covered a large area. If this happens, the cancer has likely spread to lymph nodes or other areas of the body, making treatment difficult.

It’s important to know where asbestos may be hiding and if you have been exposed. By knowing this, you may be able to identify new or worsening health symptoms and undergo testing to determine a diagnosis. An early diagnosis of mesothelioma can provide opportunities for more effective treatments. You can request baseline health screenings if you believe you’ve been exposed to legacy asbestos in your home, automobile or elsewhere.

Where Can Legacy Asbestos Be Found?

A combination of strict regulations on the use of asbestos and companies facing lawsuits from cancer victims who blamed their disease on asbestos exposure led to the phasing out of the mineral’s stature in American industrialism. It has been decades since the hazardous substance was part of building materials for new homes or offices. However, old homes and classic automobiles still exist, and many of them have not been renovated to the extent needed to eradicate any hidden asbestos.

Asbestos was part of construction and insulation for centuries and had a major uptick from 1940-1980. The only way to completely eradicate it is to remove the substance from old buildings, which requires confronting the issue of legacy asbestos.

Legacy asbestos can be found in many unsuspecting places, such as:

  • Homes
  • Schools
  • Offices
  • Government buildings
  • City landmarks
  • Household appliances
  • Automobiles
  • Other buildings (old entertainment or sports venues)

Legacy Asbestos in Schools

Schools, in particular, are facing a major issue with legacy asbestos. Many of the U.S. public schools where teachers, students and staff spend more than 8 hours a day for more than 200 days a year were built before 1985. This means many public schools in the U.S. likely contain asbestos, but it is rare for school districts to have the funding to renovate old buildings and completely eradicate legacy asbestos.

A few years ago, the Philadelphia School District experienced a legacy asbestos crisis, but the city’s budget was unable to meet the school district’s needs. Several Philadelphia public schools were shut down for extended periods of time due to asbestos spotted in classrooms, gyms and hallways. One long-time Philadelphia teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma and had no other history of exposure.

In 2022 and 2023, more Philadelphia public schools closed due to asbestos findings and concerns. The closures have disrupted student learning and caused parents to voice their concerns about the health and safety of their children. The city pledged $14 million to the asbestos schools crisis and approved national regulations for asbestos inspections in schools.

There have been other instances of legacy asbestos in schools throughout the U.S. in recent years. For example:

  • Scranton, Pennsylvania – A nearby city of Philadelphia also experienced an asbestos schools crisis, resulting in charging the school district’s superintendent, director of operations and maintenance supervisor with felonies of reckless endangerment of children.
  • Chicago, Illinois – The city faced backlash after the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund exposed that 200 Chicago Public Schools contained asbestos and posed some type of risk, which led to a back-and-forth between the city and EWG. Ultimately, EWG proved that Chicago did indeed fall behind on maintaining its public schools and properly inspecting or removing asbestos.
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa – A summer storm severely damaged one of the high schools, which required extensive repair. During the repair, asbestos was discovered and not properly removed or maintained, resulting in the school shutting down. The district and repair company were ordered to pay fines.

Legacy Asbestos in Construction

Construction workers are among the high-risk occupational asbestos exposure jobs due to the widespread use of asbestos during the 20th century. The risk of asbestos exposure for construction workers today stems from legacy asbestos.

Asbestos was often used in construction elements, such as:

  • Roof shingles
  • Wallboards
  • Siding
  • Sheetrock
  • Ceiling and floor tiles
  • Acoustical plasters
  • Drywall joint compounds
  • Cement in pipes
  • Boilers and water heaters
  • Fireplaces
  • Steel beams and columns in multistory buildings

This can become a health hazard when construction workers are renovating, repairing or demolishing old buildings or structures. The damage to the buildings during these events can disturb old asbestos hiding within the infrastructure, causing toxic asbestos dust to pollute the air. Construction workers today may be unaware that there is still a risk of asbestos exposure due to legacy asbestos.

Legacy Asbestos in Appliances

Asbestos was used in various home appliances and household items to prevent heat damage. Household items, such as toasters, ovens or fireplaces, are all known fire hazards. Asbestos was added as an insulated lining on the most vulnerable parts of these appliances to protect them during operation.

Some products were so dangerous they were pulled from the market. It is not common for appliances made today to contain asbestos, but there is a chance some old appliances in your home can still contain legacy asbestos.

Some appliances likely to have contained asbestos may be:

  • Refrigerators
  • Vacuums
  • Toasters
  • Toaster covers
  • Coffee pots
  • Ovens
  • Oven mitts
  • Freezers
  • Boilers
  • Water Heaters
  • Crockpots
  • Popcorn poppers
  • Hair dryers
  • Clothes dryers
  • Lamps
  • Lightbulbs
  • Stove tops
  • Ironing board covers
  • Fireplaces
  • Wood-burning stoves
  • Chimneys

Legacy Asbestos in Automobiles

Automobiles are another major concern for legacy asbestos exposure. Cars and other vehicles were known to contain asbestos due to the friction and heat caused by the engine and braking process.

Professional or do-it-yourself or “shade tree” mechanics may find legacy asbestos around brake shoes, brake pads, clutch linings, gaskets, and other auto parts. Asbestos was added to brake linings for heat resistance, but the grinding of the brakes caused asbestos to build up in the wheel well.

When repairing or replacing brakes in a car, the mechanic will first blow out the dust in the wheel well created from the heat and pressure of applying the brakes when driving. When installing new brakes, the mechanic will usually sand or grind the brakes to ensure a good fit. Both of these processes can disperse asbestos dust into the air and likely result in the mechanic inhaling or swallowing tiny, sharp asbestos fibers and particles.

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What Do I Do if I Find Legacy Asbestos?

If you find legacy asbestos in your home, office or anywhere else, contact a professional asbestos removal specialist immediately. Do not attempt to remove legacy asbestos yourself from electrical wires, siding, roof shingles, insulation, appliances or old vehicles.

Asbestos is dangerous, and any amount of exposure to the substance can have deadly consequences. It is important to know where the toxic mineral may be hiding in order to protect yourself from exposure.

Most states have implemented laws restricting who can handle asbestos and require anyone planning to handle the hazardous material to complete a training and certification course.

In most cases, your state’s environmental department is responsible for the regulation of asbestos and provides training courses for asbestos handling. Contact your state health or environmental department to learn about asbestos safety.

Frequently Asked Questions About Legacy Asbestos Exposure

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What is Legacy Asbestos Exposure?

Legacy asbestos is asbestos remaining in old buildings, automobiles and appliances. Although there are strict regulations in place to limit the use of asbestos today – and most corporations avoid using it due to legal liabilities – legacy asbestos remains a concern. It’s important to know the health risks associated with legacy asbestos and where it may be hiding.

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What Happens if I Am Exposed to Legacy Asbestos?

If you are exposed to legacy asbestos, you may be at risk for developing severe health conditions, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and more. Asbestos fibers are microscopic and sharp. If inhaled or swallowed, they can get stuck in the linings of the chest or abdominal cavity, causing irritation and cell mutation. It’s important to know where legacy asbestos may be hiding to protect yourself from the dangers of exposure.

Sources & Author

  1. The Hidden Killer: 10 Things You Need to Know About Legacy Asbestos. Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Retrieved from: https://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/newsroom/blogs/the-hidden-killer-10-things-you-need-to-know-about-legacy-asbestos/. Accessed: 11/10/2022.
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About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is the senior content writer and editor for Mesothelioma Guide. She creates informative content to educate mesothelioma patients and their loved ones on news, treatments and more. She also works diligently to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure and the effects of mesothelioma.