Office Air

I work an office job during the summer. It’s an okay job, but not super interesting. What is interesting, though, is a little rumor that went around the office this past summer. The office building is really, really old, and it’s owned by the same guy whose company I work for. He had some people in there working on the walls and ceilings–I guess they were relatives, or something–and the word around the office was that they were removing asbestos insulation. They were wearing masks and stuff while they worked–but none of us were, and we were just a room or two over, working at our desks! Was I breathing in asbestos from the office air?

Asbestos is a very dangerous thing–but for a long time, nobody knew that. The material was a popular choice for walls, ceiling tiles, insulation, and more for years before anyone knew that anything was wrong. American buildings built as far back as the late 1800s use asbestos, and we didn’t stop using it until the 80s, 90s, and–for some purposes–the 2000s. Asbestos was banned over the course of these decades because it can cause deadly cancers. As late as the mid-2000s, asbestos was still killing 12,000 to 15,000 Americans a year.

If your office did indeed have asbestos insulation, that would be a significant problem. It’s not an unheard-of issue, but it needs to be dealt with properly, asbestos abatement experts told us. There are regulations governing how asbestos should be removed.

The fact that this was a corporate space makes it even more bizarre that your boss may have had unlicensed contractors at work at a dangerous job. Corporate real estate experts told us that it’s vital to manage commercial spaces by the books–with so many people around, liability issues are everywhere.

With all this said, though, your letter isn’t enough for any expert to make a call as to the truth of that office rumor. One of the tricky things about asbestos is that it’s tough to detect. Asbestos in the air is dangerous because you can breathe it in–but part of why you can even do so is that it’s so small that it’s actually invisible. It’s also odorless, so the only real way to be sure about asbestos is to call in professionals to take a sample for testing.

In other words, unless someone has tested this stuff, your office rumor might be just that: a rumor. There are plenty of renovations in which masks make sense, it’s completely possible that your boss is not related to these contractors (or that these relatives also happen to be fully licensed contractors), and it’s likely that the air in your office is perfectly safe. If you’re unsure, it’s best to speak with your boss or your HR department. If you are being put at risk, you should report your boss’ practices–but you want to make sure, first, that there isn’t a perfectly innocent explanation.

“I’m the bestest / on a bad day I spit asbestos.”– Earl Sweatshirt

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