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Understanding Asbestos: What Exactly Is it?

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos comes from a “bundle” of six known naturally occurring minerals. It is comprised of a fibrous, thin, malleable material that is resistant to water, heat, chemicals, and electricity. For this reason, it was used extensively in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

Asbestos is used commercially in the following applications:

  • Attic and wall insulation
  • Vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Textured paint and patching compounds used on walls and ceilings
  • Walls and floors around wood-burning stoves protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets
  • Hot water and steam pipes coated with asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape
  • Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets with asbestos insulation
  • Heat-resistant fabrics
  • Automobile clutches and brakes

The History of Asbestos

Asbestos isn’t a manmade or a “new” discovery. The stretchy, thin material has a rich history and was once dubbed the miracle material, the use of asbestos actually dates back to the prehistoric times. The name “asbestos” is speculated to have Greek origin carrying a meaning of inextinguishable for its ability to withstand heat. Archeologists cite finding evidence of asbestos fibers having been used in lamps and candles. Additionally, asbestos cloths were used to wrap embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs to help preserve them.

Through the expansive growth of the Industrial revolution, the fiber became used in many important applications. As a result, asbestos mining became highly active for several decades. Even after the discovery of negative health implications, asbestos was still in heavy use in homes and building structures – most notably navy ships.

Unfortunately, the seriousness and high mortality rates of asbestos exposure continues to be problematic. Consequently, there is much regulation and control set forth by many government agencies to curtail the use of asbestos in modern day applications.

Should You Be Concerned If Asbestos Might Be in Your Home?

If you live in an older home, chances are it may have asbestos in some of the materials that were used at the time for building and insulting it. For removal of asbestos, it is recommended to consult with professionals who specialize in safe asbestos removal.

Some of the common places asbestos is found in homes are:

  • Fibro sheeting – corrugated walls
  • Water drainage and flu pipes
  • Roofing shingles and guttering
  • The backing of floor coverings

 Where is Asbestos Found Geographically?

Asbestos is a natural occurring mineral found in metamorphic rocks. They can be found the Western portion of the United States, but large deposits are also present in the mountains of North and South Carolina. There are small amounts in Smoky Mountains in East Tennesse. It is important to note that asbestos is not in current production in the United States. The asbestos that is used for approved commercial use in imported from Canada.

Can Asbestos Exposure Cause Health Problems?

Asbestos exposure is associated with many chronic health conditions and diseases. The fibers once inhaled can invade the lungs and create a great deal of damage to any part of the body they travel to. Unfortunately, it may take a few years (as much as 20 in some cases) for asbestos related health issues to become symptomatic. This is referred to as a latency period.

Medical experts link asbestos exposure to the following known health conditions:

Malignant Type Conditions Non-Malignant Type Conditions  
Mesothelioma COPD
Lung Cancer Pleural Effusion
Ovarian Cancer Pleural Thickening
Laryngeal Cancer Asbestosis
Stomach Cancer  

Occupations That Have Are Associated with a High Risk of Asbestos Exposure

  • Mining workers
  • Military
  • Ship workers
  • Construction workers
  • Auto mechanics
  • HVAC workers
  • Chemical plant workers
  • Cement workers
  • Firefighters
  • Steel Mill workers
  • Textile Mill workers
  • Blacksmiths

More About Mesothelioma: The Lasting Impact of Asbestos Exposure

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer directly linked to long term asbestos exposure. This basically means that any of the jobs listed below may have potentially negative consequences on the life of those who worked them. The latency period for the mesothelioma is very long (decades) and the symptoms mimic those of other health conditions which makes it very hard to diagnose.

Mesothelioma Fast Facts:

  • It is estimated that nearly 3000 people each year in the U.S. are diagnosed. Often times, mesothelioma is diagnosed in the late stages which limits treatment options.
  •  Asbestos exposure is the No.1 cause of work-related deaths in the world.
  • From 1999-2015, the CDC reported that 45,221 malignant mesothelioma deaths occurred.

The signs and symptoms may vary, but a few of the most common ones include:

  • Pain in the chest
  • Respiratory complications
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Is Asbestos Still Used?

After 1971, OSHA started to regulate the use of asbestos.  Though popular throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the harmful applications of asbestos forced the industry to come to a halt. The King City Asbestos Company (KCAC) mine in west-central California was the last active asbestos mine in the U.S., and was closed in 2002.

Additionally, the EPA is helping to protect the public from harmful asbestos exposure in the following ways:

  • In April of 2019, asbestos products that are no longer allowed on the market, may not return to commerce.
  • There are banned uses of asbestos and certain prohibited products that are not allowed to re-enter the market place. You can find a full list here and read more about the EPA and the TSCA regulations and guidelines concerning asbestos.
  • Additionally, The Clean Air Act has enforced new rules about banned uses of Asbestos.

Conclusion: Is Asbestos Exposure Still a Cause for Concern?

Yes. Asbestos is still found in many homes and building structures across the globe. While its use is highly regulated and limited in many respects, the pre-existence of asbestos continues to impact many. Because many symptoms don’t present until decades later, asbestos related health conditions are still being diagnosed. The prognosis for mesothelioma is considered to be poor and difficult to treat. It is recommended by medical experts to seek treatment if you exhibit any of the signs and symptoms associated with mesothelioma. For those who aren’t sure if asbestos is present in your home or building structure, it is a good idea to limit unnecessary exposure by consulting professionals trained to safely remove asbestos from the area.

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