Tom Smart, Deseret News
Asbestos is contained in advance of the material's actual removal during a project.

SALT LAKE CITY — Old-time crock pots, modern-day brake pads and those spray-on ceilings popularized in the '70s.

They all share one material in common: asbestos.

Widely misconstrued as a health threat and product only of yesteryear, the mineral fiber continues to be used in some goods produced today, and the demolition or renovation of buildings containing asbestos is tightly regulated under the Clean Air Act.

"Asbestos is a term we have gotten used to over time, and familiarity breeds a certain feeling that we don't have to be as concerned," said Robert Ford, manager of the state's air quality division that oversees asbestos. "We've become accustomed to it so we don't fear it as much."

But inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the chest) and asbestosis, the scarring of the lungs with fibrous tissue.

Exposure is much like a ticking time bomb, however, because the symptoms of those diseases typically don't manifest for 20 to 30 years.

Out of all the substances regulated under the Clean Air Act, Ford said asbestos has been linked to the most deaths, but an outright ban still has not been imposed.

Unlike the prohibition against lead-based paints that came out in 1978, no such sweeping law exists for asbestos.

The EPA proposed a ban that would be implemented in three stages over a six-year period, but that was challenged by industry and ultimately tossed by a federal appeals court.

State regulators, accordingly, apply a high level of scrutiny to the removal of asbestos under state rules adopted 10 years ago that go beyond what the federal government dictates.

"It is a very stringent standard, a very protective standard," Ford said.

Some have criticized that standard, questioning why the division is exercising regulatory oversight on such small projects as remodeling an older home or fixing up a fourplex.

"Finding the right level of regulatory control is very challenging for a state agency," Ford said. "There are some who feel the state is too exuberant and others who will say you are not doing enough."

As a result, the division is embarking on a survey of other states to see how Utah compares and the data that is compiled will be presented to lawmakers.

An advisory committee on the issue held its first meeting this month and will gather input from certified contractors and others with a stake in shaping regulatory oversight.

Such oversight generates a robust program on asbestos, with the agency averaging 1,400 annual inspections that only dropped last year due to the sagging economy, Ford said.

Asbestos-related phone calls typically run 5,000 a year, but again they dropped last year for the same reason.

Ford said those calls include interaction between the state and federal government on asbestos, contractors checking in during a demolition or remodeling project or general inquiries from the public.

Many of the last category are from homeowners who want to rid their residence of that spray-on ceiling from decades ago or from those who have encountered old steam pipes, boilers or furnace ducts that have been insulated with an asbestos blanket or asbestos tape.

Although the division posts a step-by-step guide for the removal process of spray-on ceilings, Ford said if he personally were confronted with such a project, he'd hire the job out.

"It's just messy and yucky, but these guys do it very fast, very effectively. They have it down to a science."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com