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What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral. It consists of flexible fibers resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities make the mineral useful in many products. They also contribute to asbestos exposure toxicity.
Construction materials contained asbestos because it is an effective insulator. Asbestos in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials makes them stronger. Inhaling or ingesting asbestos causes fibers to become trapped in the body. Over decades, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and cancer.
Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals made up of heat-resistant fibers. It was used in thousands of U.S. consumer products before the dangers of asbestos were known. Asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer and other cancers. Asbestos is regulated in the U.S., but not banned.
Exposure to asbestos happens in occupational settings and in homes throughout the U.S.
Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma. This cancer forms in the lining of the lungs or abdomen.
Other types of cancer caused by asbestos include lung, ovarian and laryngeal cancer. Exposure may cause scarring of the lungs or asbestosis.
U.S. companies produced thousands of products containing asbestos until the 1980s.
Types of Asbestos
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 legally recognizes six types of asbestos. These fall into two categories: Amphibole and serpentine.
Amphibole asbestos fibers are straight and jagged.
Serpentine asbestos fibers are curly. Chrysotile, also known as “white asbestos,” is the only form of this type of asbestos.
Where Does Asbestos Come From?
Asbestos mainly comes from Russia, Kazakhstan and China. The toxic mineral was once mined throughout North America.
Most commercial asbestos deposits contain 5% to 6% asbestos. Some deposits, such as the Coalinga deposit in California, contain 50% or more asbestos.
Asbestos Related Diseases
Scientific studies link asbestos exposure to several diseases, including cancers.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer almost only caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos also causes asbestos-related lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.
- Pleural effusions
- Pleural plaques
- Diffuse pleural thickening
The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry detailed exposure between 1940 and 1979. Its records showed about 27 million workers were exposed to aerosolized asbestos products. Now, about 1.3 million construction and industry workers remain at risk.
Regulations have reduced the risk of exposure in the workplace. A degree of risk remains for many occupations. But certain jobs still present a serious risk of exposure to asbestos today.
|Historically High Risk||Still High Risk|
|Manufacturing||Building and Equipment Maintenance|
|Shipbuilding||Renovation and Demolition|
|Heavy Industry||Sheet Gasket Use|
|Military Service||Oilfield Brake Block Repair|
The U.S. military used asbestos from the 1930s to the 1970s. Asbestos was especially common on Navy ships. Its use caused veterans to develop the bulk of asbestos-related diseases.
Family members of veterans and other asbestos industry workers also risk secondhand exposure. This type of exposure occurs when workers bring home fibers on hair, skin or clothes.
Living near an asbestos-contaminated mine or processing facility risks environmental exposure. Asbestos industry work sites have existed across the United States. One notable landmark is Grand Central Terminal in New York.
One of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history is the Superfund site at Libby, Montana. Vermiculite mining contained traces of asbestos that contaminated the surrounding area for miles. This led to the deaths of hundreds of Libby residents.
Products found in renovation or demolition work cause the most exposure. Old buildings that contain legacy asbestos products pose the largest risk.
A 2019 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule states manufacturers must seek government approval before selling discontinued uses of asbestos.
- Vinyl asbestos tiles
- Asbestos cement
- Asbestos roofing felt
- Asbestos adhesives, sealants and coatings
- Asbestos reinforced plastics
Asbestos Suppliers and Manufacturers
Hundreds of manufacturers used asbestos insulation in steam engines, piping and locomotives. Thousands of other uses emerged later. Asbestos became common in boilers, gaskets, cement, roofing materials and automotive brake pads.
- Johns Manville
- W.R. Grace & Co.
- Pittsburgh Corning
- Armstrong World Industries
How to Identify Asbestos Products
The only way to identify asbestos is through lab testing or professional inspection. Microscopic asbestos fibers have no smell or taste.
Asbestos materials fall into two risk categories:
Friable Asbestos MaterialsFriable asbestos materials are easy to break or crumble by hand. Examples include old asbestos pipe insulation and talcum powder contaminated with asbestos. These materials can release toxic dust into the air upon breakage.
Nonfriable Asbestos MaterialsNonfriable asbestos materials are more durable. Examples include asbestos cement slabs and vinyl asbestos tiles. These products keep asbestos fibers trapped as long as the products remain undisturbed. Sawing, scraping or smashing the product may release fibers.
Tips for Safely Handling Asbestos
Some situations require the removal of asbestos-containing materials. But it may be safer to leave the materials undisturbed or encapsulate them with a sealant. Consult a certified, local asbestos abatement professional for the best advice.
Some jurisdictions allow homeowners to remove asbestos materials on their own. Follow these precautions if you are considering DIY asbestos abatement:
- Seal off the work area with plastic sheets and turn off the air conditioning.
- Wear a respirator with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
- Wear disposable coveralls and gloves during Asbestos work.
- Use a pump sprayer to keep asbestos materials wet and suppress dust at all times.
- Clean the work area with wet wipes or a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
- Dispose of asbestos waste in clearly labeled bags at a landfill that can accept asbestos.
The history of asbestos extends back to ancient times. In the U.S., the toxic mineral had its heyday in the middle decades of the 20th century.
Since the asbestos industry began, doctors documented the lethal effects of asbestos exposure. As early as the 1930s, businesses hid that asbestos exposure causes lung disease.
Asbestos companies profited by selling insulation to shipbuilders during World War II. They expanded their business further during the postwar building boom. These companies paid unscrupulous researchers, such as J.C. Wagner, to deny responsibility.
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©2023 by Asbestos.com and The Mesothelioma Center. All rights reserved. | Last Modified February 3, 2023
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