What is Asbestos? A Health Primer for Rochester Students and Staff

A number of colleges and universities – both public and private – have been in the spotlight lately for asbestos exposure hazards. Specific schools (such as the University of California, Sacramento State University and George Washington University) have come under scrutiny, but the truth is almost any school founded before the 1980s may pose the same risk.

Students may feel as though they have more important things to worry about than the type of drywall in their lecture halls, the tiles in their dorms or the insulation in their library. (And naturally, teachers have lesson plans and office hours to focus on.) But when it comes down to it, asbestos is a serious carcinogen; inhaling it can lead to life-threatening cancers, such as malignant mesothelioma, and respiratory illnesses.

The good news is that abatement – the process of removing or covering dangerous asbestos-containing materials – can bring the health risks down to near zero. (Rochester has its own Asbestos Control Policy, carefully crafted by the Department of University Facilities and Services.) However, it’s still important to be aware of the types of asbestos products you might encounter – either on campus or off.

What is Asbestos, and How Does It Affect Your Health?

Asbestos is a natural mineral, made up of microscopic fibers. For many years, a variety of companies used it to make their products strong and fireproof.

Eventually, doctors noticed that a number of people who worked with the fibers were becoming ill – coincidentally, with very similar types of diseases. Testing linked the chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and other respiratory issues to inhaling (or ingesting) the fibers.

Later, research showed that most people who are exposed to asbestos once or twice don’t get sick. However, those who came into contact with it on a daily basis – such as at work or at school – for a prolonged period of time were at a significant risk for these health complications; and the prognosis for such complications is not good. Now, the medical community understands that the only way to prevent illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma is to avoid asbestos exposure entirely.

Why is it on College Campuses?

It’s almost impossible to estimate how many buildings in the United States contain asbestos – but it’s safe to say that any pre-1980s structure could be made with contaminated products. Until major efforts by environmental and occupational health groups, it was an industry standard; colleges, banks, government buildings, churches and even private homes were built using asbestos materials.

Insulation products and products with heated parts (like furnaces) most commonly used asbestos. However, inspectors for colleges and universities across the country have also found asbestos in the following on-campus mainstays:

  • Tiles
  • Shingles and roofing materials
  • Paint
  • Mastic and joint compounds
  • Laboratory bench tops
  • Electrical systems
  • Incubators

If these products are in good condition, they’re generally not considered a health hazard. However, as they age – or if they are damaged – they can release the fibers into the air. At that point, the surrounding area becomes a potential exposure zone.

How Can You Protect Your Health?

At Rochester University, the Asbestos Control Group has a complete plan to keep students and staff safe. Contractors regularly inspect – and address – any products that might pose a health risk; however, it’s important to note the following:

  • University staff that suspects an exposure hazards should report the details to their supervisor.
  • Students who suspect an exposure hazard should report the details to the Department of University Facilities and Services.
  • Students and staff should never attempt to remove, cover or repair asbestos-containing materials on their own.

Students, teachers, contractors, parents and other visitors should direct any additional questions to the Environmental Health and Safety Board.


Faith Franz blogs for The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. She enjoys educating cancer patients and their families about the benefits of alternative medicine.

Rochester University. (May 2004). Asbestos Control Policy. Retrieved from http://www.facilities.rochester.edu/cu/docs/AsbestosControl.pdf.

Keyes, Dale. (1985). Guidance for Controlling Asbestos-Containing Materials in Buildings. Diane Publishing CO


The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the University of Rochester or any employee thereof. University of Rochester is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

19 Replies to “What is Asbestos? A Health Primer for Rochester Students and Staff”

  1. Kudos to the University of Rochester for implementing such detailed action plans to keep their students safe. Every major institution like schools, banks, etc., which were constructed before the 1980s, has a potential asbestos threat. It is highly recommended that they use asbestos testing services to ascertain the level of exposure.

  2. I didn’t realise that asbestos could be found in paint also! The thing about asbestos is getting it before it turns into an issue. I realise that there is a considerable measure of organisations who can help you test for asbestos. I believe it’s a smart thought to have this kind of testing done when purchasing another house, particularly if the house was made before 80’s.

  3. Asbestos used to be a great insulation material until late 19th century when its deadly health effects came to light. With continued exposure, one is likely to get serious illnesses such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma

  4. Very nice post , koraban impact of asbestos hazards is increasing , but public awareness of the dangers of asbestos is still so small , many countries do not have rules ban the use of asbestos , and it is very worrying , leave asbestos alone now!

  5. Oh my, I didn’t know that asbestos could be found in paint! The tricky thing about asbestos is catching it before it becomes a problem. I know that there are a lot of companies who can help you test for asbestos. I think it’s a good idea to have this sort of testing done when buying a new house, especially if the house was made before 1980.

  6. You have explained each and every point regarding asbestos very nicely. As you have discussed all about its effects on health, its control and where it is found. I am sure your blog has helped many people in clearing out their doubts regarding asbestos.

  7. Whilst it may depend on the particular circumstance I am not sure that the last comment is necessarily correct in all situations. If you were to add up the costs of managing an asbestos item in situ e.g. encapsulation / on-going management including regular re-inspection there may be a case in some circumstances to remove the item of asbestos if the only deciding factor is cost. Of cause you should assess not only the risk of the item remaining in situ but also the risk of removal.

  8. Asbestos removal is an important issue because asbestos can cause cancer and other respiratory problems. Public and non-profit private schools, office have distinct regulatory requirements to protect school children and employees from asbestos exposure.

  9. Asbestos fibers may be released into the air by the disturbance of asbestos-containing material during product use, demolition work, building or home maintenance, repair, and remodeling. In general, exposure may occur only when the asbestos-containing material is disturbed or damaged in some way to release particles and fibers into the air.

  10. Hi,

    I enjoyed your article but wanted to clarify a couple of points certainly from a UK point of view.

    I am not sure if it was a case of the doctors eventually noticing that people who worked with asbestos were becoming ill. The health effects of asbestos have been known about for years – in the uk the first documented asbestos related death was in 1906 although it took the uk government almost 80 years before they started placing prohibitions on the import of asbestos and a further 20 years before they introduced the Duty to Manage regulations. If the health effects have been known about for so many years you have to ask why the government was reluctant to stop the importation!

    Secondly I wondered why you stayed clear of saying what the actual health effects of asbestos related diseases are and the fact that there is no cure and that an estimated 10,000 Americans are likely to die from the associated diseases each year – this would certainly add to the gravitas of your article.

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