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What is asbestos, where does it come from, and what is the cancer risk

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Ivanka Trump Kellyanne Conway
Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Several of the most high-profile offices at the White House are empty, after $250,000 renovations underway at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue sparked fears that asbestos dust could be floating through the Trump administration’s breathing air.

First daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, policy aide Stephen Miller, top economic aide Larry Kudlow, and other Trump administration higher-ups are temporarily moving shop, because the ceiling and attic on the second floor of the West Wing might contain asbestos.

Read more: Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and other top Trump aides have had their White House offices relocated to remove potential asbestos

A spokeswoman for the US General Services Administration said the office move is “precautionary” and there is no known immediate danger to any White House workers.

“The building has been, and remains, safe for occupancy,” GSA press secretary Pamela Pennington told Bloomberg.

The White House, like many older buildings across the US, may be tainted with asbestos, as it used to be a common insulation material. Asbestos fibers are completely harmless when hidden by walls, ceilings, and paint, but the mineral is toxic to humans when the fibers are released into the air.

Last July, when a steam pipe exploded on Fifth Avenue in New York City, spewing muck, steam, and asphalt into the air, the incident generated similar fears of asbestos contamination.

Why Asbestos is dangerous

Mined in different white, blue, brown and green shades, asbestos is a naturally-occurring silicate mineral that is composed of long, thin crystals, which can kind of look like a fibrous blanket.

Asbestos was used as a building material for years before it was linked to lung problems. The dust from asbestos can be toxic when we inhale it, and loose asbestos fibers should be avoided.

Asbestos
Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1800s, people began noticing that asbestos miners in the UK were dying off at alarming rates, a first warning sign that inhaling the dust from asbestos could be deadly dangerous.

The fibers have been useful in all kinds of construction, “due to their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack,” the World Health Organization explains. For a long time, asbestos was used in insulation, water supply lines, roof shingles, break pads, and numerous other products.

“The reality is that anybody brought up in the 1960s has probably been exposed, at some point, to asbestos,” cancer researcher Paul Pharoah from Cambridge University previously told Business Insider.

A signs warns of asbestos in the area where a demolition crew removed the remains of a demolished home in Detroit.
Reuters

Products that contain asbestos are not completely banned in the US today, though the Environmental Protection Agency regulates their use. But governments in other countries have completely banned the use of asbestos.

In France, all forms have been outlawed since 1997, because the government there declared “at least 2,000 people in France die every year from asbestos-related diseases.”

The World Health Organization says definitively that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, and causes cancer in the lungs, larynx, ovaries, as well as many cases of mesothelioma.

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