If you are worried about asbestos exposure, you can purposely avoid older buildings and structures built before the 1980s that have yet to be renovated. Because asbestos was banned starting in the late 1980s, most buildings constructed after this time do not contain the carcinogen. However, when one of these older buildings are damaged in a fire, it can release asbestos fibers into the air, where they can be carried over long distances due to the wind.
First, it may seem contradictory that fires can spread asbestos. Asbestos is a silicate, which means that it is resistant to electricity, chemicals, heat, and flames. However, asbestos also has high tensile strength and flexibility, which means that it is easily added to a number of different materials to add an insulating effect. Thus, when these other materials burn, they can release the unaffected asbestos fibers into the air.
For instance, asbestos has been added to vinyl flooring, roof tar, roof tiles, and insulation. If a building burns down, the vinyl and other materials can melt in the flames. The resistant asbestos fibers will survive, and because they can break apart into microscopic pieces, they can float in the air without anyone knowing that the smoke from the fire is doubly toxic.
Frighteningly, asbestos was once so popular that it was embraced as an insulator for cement water pipes, in almost every part of a building, and as brake shoes and clutch pads in cars. Thus, fires in older buildings have a strong chance of releasing asbestos into the air.
Asbestos itself is not dangerous until it becomes airborne, where you can ingest or inhale it. Once you take this carcinogen into your body, it lodges in your tissues where your body cannot break it down. Instead, your tissue might form nodules around the fibers to keep them from irritating you. These nodules can turn into cancerous tumors like mesothelioma or lung, gastrointestinal, esophageal, throat, or even kidney cancers.
Asbestos that can go airborne is called friable. When asbestos is non-friable, it cannot break apart into microscopic fibers. Even when asbestos is coated with special lacquers to make it non-friable, destructive events such as fires, natural disasters, and even heavy friction and old age can gradually turn it into a dangerously friable material.