Asbestos, although a naturally occurring substance, is a highly toxic material. Inhaling its fibers can cause serious lung damage and even death. California has some of the largest natural deposits of asbestos on the planet. It also has the most asbestos-related deaths of any state.
Although asbestos is no longer allowed in construction, it was used extensively in building materials throughout much of the 20th century. Many older structures in California still contain the substance. Since the United States military used asbestos extensively on Naval ships, many victims of asbestos-related disease are veterans. Asbestos workers and their families also have an elevated risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.
Since asbestos can cause serious illness and death, its removal and handling are regulated by both federal and California law. California regulates testing for asbestos, asbestos certification for contractors and workers who work in premises containing asbestos, and asbestos abatement work, which includes encapsulating, enclosing and removing asbestos at a job site.
Read More: Residential Building Codes
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of six silicate minerals that share the same fibrous nature. They occur in nature and are composed of thin fibers that resemble needles. The mineral's fibers are soft and flexible and can be "pulled" into a fluffy consistency, making them easy to work with. Manufacturers make raw asbestos by crushing the ore, separating out other minerals and then processing the asbestos until it has a soft, woolly consistency.
Asbestos fibers resist heat, electricity and corrosion, making asbestos an effective insulator. Much of the asbestos used in California over the years was installed as insulation in homes and office buildings. The fibers can also be added to materials like cloth, paper, plastic and cement to strengthen them. But when a person inhales asbestos dust, the fibers get trapped in the lungs and cause damage to the body.
What Are the Types of Asbestos?
There are six types of asbestos. California, as well as the federal government, regulates all of them. They are minerals of different colors and include:
- Actinolite, which can be white, brown, gray, green or translucent.
- Amosite, which is brown.
- Anthophyllite, which is white.
- Chrysotile, which is white.
- Crocidolite, which is blue.
- Tremolite, which can be white, brown, gray, green or translucent.
Chrysotile is the most commonly used asbestos. The next two most commonly used are amosite, used in cement sheets and for pipe insulation, and crocidolite, used to insulate pipes, steam engines and in spray-on coatings.
How Does Asbestos Harm People?
Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and it is unsafe to sniff a substance suspected of being asbestos. When someone breathes in asbestos dust, the trapped asbestos fibers can inflame the person's lungs, creating internal lung scarring and damaging the body cells.
Inhaled asbestos fibers cause severe illnesses like lung cancer, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, a particularly rare and lethal form of cancer. Asbestos can also cause other forms of cancer and progressive lung disease.
How Do People Get Exposed to Asbestos?
When asbestos stays in one place undisturbed, humans are not at risk. It is when asbestos fibers are released into the air that exposure to asbestos occurs. An asbestos fiber is so tiny that it is invisible to the naked eye, and so small that it can pass through vacuum cleaner filters and stay airborne for hours. Its small size and tendency to float on air can result in fast and easy exposure.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled and embedded in human lungs, there is no natural mechanism to remove them. The biggest risk for exposure in this country today is for workers involved in renovation or demolition work of old buildings containing asbestos. People who live with asbestos workers can be exposed to second-hand asbestos, and people who live or work near sites with asbestos-containing materials may inhale asbestos fibers.
There is no "safe" level of asbestos exposure. However, several factors make it more likely for someone to develop an asbestos-related disease. These include the amount of asbestos exposure, the length of exposure and the number of exposures.
Where Was Asbestos Mined in California?
Asbestos has been mined around the world for thousands of years, but it began to be used industrially for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century. California is rich in mineral deposits including asbestos. In fact, it has more natural asbestos than any other state. According to the California Department of Public Health, 45 of California’s 58 counties have naturally occurring asbestos deposits.
The last asbestos operation in the United States – closed in 2002 – was the King City Asbestos Company mine. It was located in the west-central area of California in the Coalinga asbestos district of San Benito and Fresno Counties.
Today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency gives Superfund status to the entire town of Coalinga, making it a cleanup priority because mining and processing there spread the area’s asbestos throughout the town. El Dorado Hills is another area that was home to enormous asbestos deposits and mining projects.
Where Is Asbestos Found in Buildings?
Manufacturers liked to use asbestos in commercial products because the mineral has high tensile strength. They mixed asbestos fibers with binding agents in over 3,500 different commercial products used in construction.
Even though the use of asbestos in construction materials today is highly regulated, many older structures still contain the substance. Asbestos is most often found in ceiling insulation, but other materials can also include asbestos, including:
- Drywall joint patching compounds.
- Stove or pipe insulation.
- Floor tiles.
- Furnaces and duct work.
- Roofing materials.
How Does California Regulate Asbestos Testing?
Given the miniscule size of asbestos fibers, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to detect them simply by looking. This means that general contractors cannot come in and give homeowners the "all clear" just by glancing around the premises. Moreover, this practice is illegal in California.
California asbestos regulations specify that the only people permitted to do asbestos testing and reporting are licensed professionals with specialized equipment. And even they cannot determine at a glance whether asbestos is present. They take samples and information to a lab where asbestos-trained technicians do further testing. This ultimately will result in a report as to whether a building contains asbestos and, if so, the type and concentration.
What Are the Options If Asbestos Is Found?
California regulations gives property owners three options if the lab reports the presence of asbestos in their buildings. They can:
- Do nothing and continue to live there despite the danger.
- Use sealants to contain the asbestos fibers.
- Hire an asbestos professional to remove the asbestos.
Not surprisingly, professional removal is the most expensive option and also the best one in terms of health. The asbestos is removed and cannot cause any further harm. This option is logical if the property owner is planning renovation or demolition.
Sealants do not require demolition so this option is less expensive. However, sealing in the asbestos fibers won't serve as complete protection for individuals if work is being done in the area like during a renovation project.
Doing nothing about the asbestos has obvious downsides, but California does not mandate asbestos removal.
Read More: Federal Help With Removing Asbestos
How Does California Regulate Asbestos Certification?
Under California asbestos regulations, contractors and their workers doing asbestos work on a project area that meets certain requirements must register with the Asbestos Contractor's Registration Organization. To trigger this requirement, the area must exceed 100 square feet in size and have an asbestos concentration above 0.1 percent.
Everyone working with asbestos must have certification. California regulations describe five types of certification. Each has different training requirements that must be completed in a facility certified by the state. It's not a one-time thing. Certifications have to be renewed every year.
California certifies individuals as workers, contractors, building inspectors, project designers or management planners.
How Does California Regulate Asbestos Abatement?
When a construction crew removes asbestos, it is termed asbestos abatement. The procedure is subject to strict regulations in California for the protection of those working on the project and also those who will later occupy the premises. For example, California asbestos law requires protections in place for asbestos workers. They are required to wear respirators and protective clothing.
In California, there are four classes of abatement operations, each with its own regulations and procedures. The law requires that everyone working with or handling asbestos have specialized training and be familiar with the regulations for all classes of operations. It further requires that asbestos-containing materials cannot simply be dropped or thrown on the ground. Instead, they must be carefully lowered and stored temporarily with specified signs indicating the danger.
What Are the Classes of Asbestos Abatement?
The classes of abatement operations include:
- Class I, which is the removal of asbestos in furnaces and duct work.
- Class II, which involves asbestos removal in floor tiles, roofing, wallboard, sheeting and construction materials.
- Class III, which involves repair or maintenance work.
- Class IV, which is maintenance or custodial work whereby employees come in contact with but don’t disturb the asbestos.
With either of the first two classes of abatement, California regulations require that the project be done in an enclosed and regulated area and asbestos-containing materials must be removed intact to the extent possible. Once asbestos materials are taken down, they must be soaked in water before removal to reduce the likelihood that asbestos fibers escape into the air.
Class III operations follow the same California asbestos regulations as classes I and II, but the dry cutting of asbestos-containing materials is not permitted.
How Does California Regulate the Transportation of Asbestos?
Transporting and disposing of asbestos materials is another highly regulated area in California. The asbestos waste product must be transported by a registered hazardous waste transporter, packaged and sealed according to strict regulations. A uniform hazardous waste manifest is required.
Homeowners who generate relatively small amounts of asbestos waste can transport it in any safe manner to a household hazardous waste collection facility. Businesses can only do so if they meet the list of conditions found in Health and Safety Code section 25163(c)
Otherwise, numerous laws and regulations must be met. Asbestos workers involved in handling and disposing of materials must meet the requirements of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, 40 C.F.R. § 763, as well as the Clean Air Act and the California Code of Regulations, title 22, division 4.5 and the EPA.
Are There Other Areas of Asbestos Regulation in California?
Asbestos is heavily regulated in California as well as under federal law. Many different regulations apply to its abatement, transport and disposal. Asbestos in shipyards is regulated under 8 CCR §8358, while asbestos in general industry is regulated by 8 CCR §5208. Certification of asbestos consultants and site surveillance technicians is regulated in 8 CCR §341.15.
Read More: OSHA Air Quality Standards
- Contractor's State Licensing Board: Asbestos
- California DTSC: Managing Asbestos Hazardous Waste
- Asbestos.com: Asbestos
- California DIR: Asbestos Contractor Registration
- FindLaw: California Asbestos Regulations
- FindLaw: Asbestos FAQs
- Kazan Law: What to Know About California Asbestos Regulations
- California DIR: Asbestos
- Legal Beagle: Federal Help With Removing Asbestos
- Legal Beagle: How to Get a General Contractor's License
- Legal Beagle: Residential Building Codes
- Legal Beagle: What Is the Purpose of an MSDS?
- Legal Beagle: OSHA Air Quality Standards
- Legal Beagle: California Regulations Law: What Are Regulations in California?
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.