What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the name applied to a group of naturally occurring minerals that are mined from the earth. The six different types of regulated asbestos are:

  • Amosite
  • Chrysotile
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite

Of these six, three are used more commonly. Chrysotile is the most common, but it is not unusual to encounter Amosite, or Crocidolite as well. In many instances a single product will have a mixture of different asbestos types. All types of asbestos can break into very tiny fibers. These individual fibers can be broken down so small that they can only be identified using an electron microscope. Some individual fibers may be up to 700 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Because asbestos fibers are so small, once released into the air, they may stay suspended there for hours or even days. Asbestos fibers are also virtually indestructible. They are resistant to chemicals and heat, and they are very stable in the environment. They do not evaporate into air or dissolve in water, and they are not broken down over time. Asbestos is probably the best insulator known to man.

Because asbestos has so many useful properties, it has been used in over 3,000 different products. Usually asbestos is mixed with other materials to form the products. Floor tiles, for example, may contain only a small percentage of asbestos. Depending on what the product is, the amount of asbestos in asbestos containing materials (ACM) may vary from less than 1% to 100%.  

Where is Asbestos Found?

Asbestos may be found in many different products and many different places. Examples of products that might contain asbestos are:

  • Sprayed on fire proofing and insulation in buildings
  • Insulation for pipes and boilers
  • Wall and ceiling insulation
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Floor tiles
  • Putties, caulks, and cements (such as in chemical carrying cement pipes)
  • Roofing shingles siding shingles on old residential buildings
  • Wall and ceiling texture in older buildings and homes Joint compound in older buildings and homes
  • Brake linings and clutch pad

When is Asbestos Dangerous?

The most common way for asbestos fibers to enter the body is through breathing. In fact, asbestos containing material is not generally considered to be harmful unless it is releasing dust or fibers into the air where they can be inhaled or ingested. Many of the fibers will become trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat where they can then be removed, but some may pass deep into the lungs, or, if swallowed, into the digestive tract.

Once they are trapped in the body, the fibers can cause health problems. Asbestos is most hazardous when it is friable. The term "friable" means that the asbestos is easily crumbled by hand, releasing fibers into the air. Sprayed on asbestos insulation is highly friable. Asbestos floor tile generally is not.

Asbestos-containing ceiling tiles, floor tiles, undamaged laboratory cabinet tops, shingles, fire doors, siding shingles, etc. will not release asbestos fibers unless they are disturbed or damaged in some way. If an asbestos ceiling tile is drilled or broken, for example, it may release fibers into the air. If it is left alone and not disturbed, it generally will not. Asbestos pipe and boiler insulation does not present a hazard unless the protective canvas covering is cut or damaged in such a way that the asbestos underneath is actually exposed to the air.

Damage and deterioration will increase the friability of asbestos-containing materials. Water damage, continual vibration, aging, and physical impact such as drilling, grinding, buffing, cutting, sawing, or striking can break the materials down making fiber release more likely.


Housekeepers and custodians should never sand or dry buff asbestos containing floor tiles, and only wet stripping methods may be used during stripping operations. Low abrasion pads should be used at speeds below 300 rpm. Broken and fallen ceiling tiles should be left in place until identified. Only after they have been identified as asbestos free may they be removed. Asbestos tiles will be removed by asbestos abatement workers. Broken and damaged asbestos floor tiles must also be removed by asbestos abatement workers. By knowing where asbestos is likely to be located and then taking measures not to disturb it, you will protect yourself and others from exposure to this hazardous substance.


Historically, lead was one of the first agents identified as toxic. Today the primary route for exposure is through construction activity such as through sanding or sandblasting painted surfaces. Places where lead can also be encountered include firing ranges, and art studios. Work involving lead exposure is regulated by OSHA and the Department of Health Services.  

Lead can cause developmental delays in children and upon elevated exposure can cause nervous system, reproductive and gastrointestinal symptoms. Symptoms of lead poisoning include weakness, excessive tiredness, irritability, constipation, anorexia, abdominal discomfort (colic), fine tremors, and wrist drop. Additionally, damage to the kidneys and the nervous system, anemia, high blood pressure, impotence, infertility, and reduced sex drive can also occur with overexposure to lead. Lead poisoning, neurological effects, and mental retardation have occurred in the children of workers engaged in the occupations mentioned above.  

OSHA Lead Standard requires that employees be exposed to not more than 50ug/m3 for an 8 hour shift and if exposure is above 30ug/m3 certain requirements apply. If lead exposure is possible on the worksite, then air monitoring will be required to determine exposure levels. If monitoring and work practice evaluation indicates that exposure above the PEL for 30 or more days a year are likely, then a written program will be required. The program must include:  

  • Description of practices and control means
  • Air Monitoring Data
  • Respirator program
  • If over PEL provision of work clothes and laundering 
  • HEPA vac or wet methods
  • Change room showers >PEL
  • Training including initial and annual 
  • Med surveillance including blood screening  > PEL 30 + days/yr, medical exams
  • Medical removal
  • Posting of areas  

Before engaging in work that may disturb a painted surface, you’ll first need to have that surface sampled for lead. To do this, you can contact safety at 265-5000.


Airborne mold spores are present throughout indoor and outdoor environments. They are very common in soil and plant material. Mold spores are a common allergenic agent. It is estimated that 10% of the population is allergic to mold[1] Other health effects that have been attributed to mold include upper respiratory conditions and in rare cases respiratory fungal infection, though this is limited almost exclusively to those with severely depressed immune function. The National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine has evaluated the weight of evidence for relationships between mold exposure and other non-respiratory health effects and concluded there is insufficient evidence of an association.[2] 

There is no standard for an acceptable level of airborne mold exposure. Current professional guidance suggests that in a building with filtered mechanical ventilation, indoor airborne mold levels should be less than outdoor levels. Indoor levels may be closer to outdoor levels when a building is more open to the outdoors such as with open windows. Dominant (most prevalent) mold species in the outdoor sample should be the same as the indoor dominant species.

There are some species of mold that are well adapted to damp, moist environments and are referred to as “indicators” of water damage. Examples of indicator mold species include Fusarium, Stachybotrys, Chaetomium, Aspergillus and Rhodotorula. In addition to mold levels and species dominance, the presence of such species can suggest an indoor moisture condition or mold growth even when total counts are less than outdoor levels.

While occasional exposure to molds in some form is unavoidable in everyday life, it is nonetheless important to minimize potential for constant exposure in our living and workspaces. The best way of doing so is by quick response to water infiltration when identified. The links at the right provide a wealth of information and help define the standard of care for dealing with mold prevention and response in the home and workplace. If you have questions about mold, please contact the EHS Department at 265-5000.

[1] Adverse Human Health Effects Associated with Molds in the Indoor Environment. An Evidence-Based Statement. American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2002.

[2] Damp Indoor Spaces and Health, Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Institute of Medicine, 2004.


Asbestos Awareness

Comprehensive course to explain what asbestos is, the difference(s) between "friable" and "non-friable" asbestos, the health effects relating to contact, procedures for controlling and reporting asbestos exposure, and the identification of building materials containing asbestos.

This course is meant for anyone who does not perform abatement tasks, but occasionally works around asbestos.

Format: In-person; To schedule an appointment call Chris Heidel at (608) 575-3628.

Location: Environmental Protection and Safety Building; 30 East Campus Mall. >> Directions

Prerequisite: None

Renewal: None

If you require an abatement service or assessment, please fill out our Abatement Service Request form.

Heidel, Chris
Abatement Coordinator

Higby, Brian
Environmental Health Specialist; Abatement