Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals that can be found in the environment. The fibers of these minerals are strong, flexible, and heat-resistant, making them useful when spun or woven into sheets. Asbestos was used in building materials, heat-resistant products, and machinery components. When these products break down, asbestos particles enter the air and water. This means people who work in industries such as housing repair or demolition that disturb asbestos-containing materials are at high risk for exposure. People who live near such industries are also at risk.

Breathing high levels of asbestos damages the lungs, and long-term exposure can cause scar tissue. The US Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and World Health Organization have all determined that asbestos is known to cause cancer. The most common kinds of cancer are lung cancer and mesothelioma, and asbestos exposure may also increase the chances of developing cancer in other organs. Because of this danger, the use of asbestos was banned in the US in 1989, but many products made before that time are still in use.

Asphalt shingles are roofing shingles that use asphalt for waterproofing. Because they’re inexpensive and easy to install they are the most widely used roofing covers in the United States. Asphalt shingles made before the 1980s may contain asbestos; although that seems like a long time ago, many of these old shingles are still around because it is common practice to layer new shingles on top of old ones. This means that asbestos-containing asphalt shingles can be found in communities all over the country.

In Wausau, Wisconsin, asphalt shingles waste has been buried as well as left in open-air piles. The grassroots community group Citizens for a Clean Wausau contacted CHEJ about the potential for old shingles in these waste piles to release asbestos into the air, exposing surrounding residents. If Wausau residents are inhaling asbestos, this could elevate their risk for developing cancer. To assess this possibility and the level of risk that may be posed to residents, measurements of contaminants in the shingles as well as in the surrounding air and dust would be necessary. The best way to ensure there is no risk to the community is to remove these shingles and destroy them safely.

Learn about more toxics