What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a general term that refers to a collection of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals. Asbestos is very resistant to heat, fire, and electricity, which have made it very useful over the years in a variety of industrial applications. Asbestos can be found in adhesives, cement, insulation, construction materials, and even personal products like cosmetics and talcum powder. While asbestos is not currently banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is heavily regulated.

Types of asbestos

Because asbestos is actually a group of six related minerals, there are different categories of asbestos. The six types of asbestos are:

  • Chrysotile: This is the most common form, accounting for about 90% of commercially used asbestos worldwide. Chrysotile is the only form of asbestos to have long, curly fibers.
  • Amosite: This is the second most-used type. It has long straight fibers that are brown in color because of its iron and magnesium content.
  • Crocidolite: These fibers are blue and straight. It is considered to be the most dangerous form of asbestos.
  • Tremolite: This type of asbestos has never been mined or used on its own, so it is only ever found as a contaminant in products containing vermiculite or talc It can come in several colors like gray, white, or green.
  • Anthophyllite: This type of asbestos has also not been specifically mined, and instead is found as a contaminant in vermiculite or talc. It contributes to occupational exposure risk for miners of these minerals. It can appear in several colors like white, grey, or brown.
  • Actinolite: This type of asbestos occurs naturally as dark green crystals or collections of fibers. Actinolite is frequently found as a contaminant in products like paints, sealants, children’s toys, and more.

These six types of asbestos are broadly divided into two categories. Chrysotile is considered a serpentine asbestos (forming in a layered or tiered form), and the other five are amphibole asbestos (forming in long chains).

Where is asbestos found?

Asbestos is a mineral, so it is found naturally in large underground deposits where it is mined for commercial use.  Chrysotile can also be mined from veins through serpentine rock. However, asbestos is no longer mined in North America, so today the main exporters of asbestos are China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Asbestos can also be found as a contaminant in minerals like vermiculite or talc.

History of asbestos

Asbestos has a very long history with humans. It is thought to have been discovered as early as 4500 years ago, when it was used to make pots and utensils. Asbestos toxicity was discovered as early as the first century, when Pliny the Younger noted that slaves in mines who worked with asbestos became sick.

Asbestos was most heavily mined and used throughout the 20th century. During this time, the asbestos industry boomed as manufacturers discovered how useful the material was. But they did not all realize the full extent of its toxicity. Worse still, many companies ignored warnings about asbestos health risks.

In fact, doctors were aware of the health risks of asbestos exposure as early as the 1930’s, but industry interests kept this information from changing asbestos regulations for many years.

The evidence was easy to ignore because companies producing insulation and other construction materials made such a huge profit during World War II that they were able to pay researchers to produce slated evidence that asbestos did not cause health problems.

The risks of asbestos were continuously covered up by industry leaders in this way, until the 1970’s when courts finally began to hold companies legally responsible for asbestos-caused illnesses in their employees and their families.

Since 1989, the EPA has been working to phase out asbestos use in the United States in response to their own research and pressure from labor unions concerned for worker safety, but efforts to ban the substance completely have been unsuccessful. Today, use of asbestos is significantly reduced, but not eliminated.

Asbestos lawsuits

Asbestos has a long and sordid history with the law. The first successful asbestos lawsuit in which a company was held accountable for the toxins in their products was won in 1973. Clarence Borel was an insulator who developed mesothelioma and asbestosis from his work, causing him to sue insulation companies in this historic case. He won his lawsuit and set a precedent for many other cases to follow over the next several decades.

Today, companies are held responsible by the courts for the asbestos in their products. Many former workers who are now sick after asbestos exposure are filing lawsuits against asbestos companies, and there are numerous legal compensation schemes in place for workers and families impacted by asbestos exposure. Hundreds of thousands of families have submitted successful claims and received compensation for illnesses and deaths caused by asbestos negligence.

How are people exposed to asbestos?

Asbestos exposure occurs when materials that contain asbestos are disturbed, causing fibers to enter the air. Asbestos can stay airborne for up to 72 hours once disturbed, so it is very easy to breathe in asbestos without even realizing the air was contaminated. These small fibers are easy to breathe in, but it is not easy for the body to get rid of the fibers. Many get stuck permanently. Because of this, even a small amount of asbestos exposure is not safe.

Workplace exposure is the most common way for people to be exposed to toxic levels of asbestos. Miners, and people who work around live construction sites are most at risk of asbestos exposure. Other groups at risk include first responders and military personnel who work around damaged buildings.

Though workplace exposure is most common, all people are exposed to asbestos at some point because there are trace amounts present in the air. People who live in cities or otherwise in regular proximity to construction or demolition sites may be at greater risk. For example, people who live in the vicinity of the World Trade Center may be at greater risk for developing asbestos-related diseases because of the huge amount of asbestos released in the 2001 September 11th attacks.

A final source of asbestos exposure is secondary exposure. This refers to workers who have been exposed to large amounts of asbestos bringing it home to their families. Asbestos fibers like to stick to clothes, hair, and skin, so many workers unknowingly have brought the toxic fibers home, which puts their family at risk for illness later in life.

Industries with the highest risk of asbestos exposure

While risk of asbestos exposure at work is not as high as it was many years ago, workplace asbestos exposure still occurs. If you work in any of the following industries, you are at risk, especially if you have worked in these industries since before the 1980’s when asbestos began to be phased out:

  • Mining: Though mining for asbestos itself in the United States ended in 2002, asbestos contamination is still a problem today when mining for minerals such as vermiculite and talc. One famous examples of asbestos exposure through a non-asbestos mine was the W.R. Grace and Co.’s vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, which was contaminated with asbestos that went on to make hundreds of miners and their families sick, many of whom died.
  • Construction: Construction workers have historically had some of the highest risk of asbestos exposure because so many construction materials contain it. Before asbestos began to be phased out in the 1980’s, thousands of construction products contained asbestos. Today, demolition crews home renovators are still at risk of exposure from these same products. Additionally, even some newer roofing and flooring materials are still made from asbestos.
  • Trades and industrial work: Many materials that trade and industry workers engage with were or are still made with asbestos. These workers include electricians, insulators, plumbers and pipefitters, brickmasons and boilermakers, drywall installers, mechanics, foremen, trade laborers, chemical workers and machinery operators. Insulators who worked before the 1980’s are especially likely to have been exposed.
  • Firefighting: Fires can strike in any building, old or new. So whenever any older building that contains many asbestos materials catches fire, firefighters risk exposure to asbestos. The September 11th attacks put many firefighters and other first responders at great risk of asbestos exposure.
  • Military:  Several jobs in the military may lead to asbestos exposure. These include working in shipyards, construction, or vehicle repair. Additionally, veterans who have served overseas, especially in places with many ruined and worn-down buildings like Iraq or other countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
  • Education: Teachers are at risk for asbestos exposure from dust in the classroom, particularly in old or worn-down school buildings. Certain art supplies that contain talc-like chalks might also be contaminated with asbestos.

What products contain asbestos?

Asbestos is found in a huge array of products. While it is being slowly phased out of manufacturing, many of the products that contain asbestos were manufactured many years ago and are still on the shelves today. Here are some of the products that may contain asbestos:

  • Adhesives, bonding, and sealers: Asbestos was being used for these products as late as the 1980’s. Because these are important construction materials, many homes and buildings contain residual asbestos from past uses.
  • Cement and other construction materials: Asbestos cement (Transite) is cement that has asbestos mixed into it as an additive to make it stronger and more durable. While no new asbestos cement is being manufactured in the United States today, buildings made with it years ago are beginning to deteriorate, putting more asbestos into the air. Similar issues are emerging with other asbestos-containing construction products like tiles and shingles.
  • Insulation: This is probably the most well-known use of asbestos. While today there are restrictions on how much asbestos can be in insulation, many buildings may still be using insulation from many years ago that contains much more.
  • Consumer products and cosmetics: There are many products that contain asbestos that the average consumer encounters, even if they are not involved in construction. These include paint, talcum powder, makeup, and transportation and automotive products.

Who supplies and manufactures asbestos?

While the United States used to be a major manufacturer of asbestos, asbestos use in the US has fallen by about 99% since 1973. However, because asbestos is not banned in the United States, the materials remains in certain textiles and building materials.

The leading countries for producing and exporting asbestos are China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. These countries mine asbestos and sell it to countries around the world, not just the United States. This results in a massive global supply of the toxic mineral that the United States legally imports and puts into a variety of products.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

The chief danger of asbestos is that the fibers do not degrade and are easy to breathe in, leading to long-term accumulation of asbestos for those who are exposed regularly. Because asbestos is most dangerous when inhaled, not all asbestos materials are equally dangerous. Nonfriable asbestos materials like concrete do not easily break and keep asbestos fibers safely trapped inside. Friable asbestos materials crumble easily and release many fibers into the air.

When inhaled, asbestos fibers are difficult for the body to remove. Their shape makes them stick easily to tissue in the respiratory tract, and fibers that the body cannot remove become stuck and lead to scarring, inflammation, and DNA damage. Damage from asbestos exposure can lead to several major health issues like cancer or and chronic respiratory illness.

Many of the serious health conditions associated with asbestos do not develop until many years after exposure, which makes the diseases difficult to diagnose early. This leads to poor prognosis for many victims of asbestos exposure.

What diseases are caused by asbestos?

Asbestos causes several serious diseases, including cancer. Because asbestos exposure occurs slowly over a long period of time, these illnesses generally do not develop until many years after exposure. Asbestos exposure can lead to any of the following illnesses:

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer that can occur in the lungs, abdominal cavity, pericardium (membranes around the heart), or testes. While mesothelioma in general is considered a rare disease, it occurs far more frequently after asbestos exposure. The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural (lung) mesothelioma. It is this type that is most often caused by asbestos exposure.Because mesothelioma is often not detected until it has already progressed significantly, prognosis is poor for patients with mesothelioma. There is no cure, but patients may benefit from treatment through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or immunotherapy.

Lung cancer

Non-mesothelioma lung cancer can also occur from asbestos exposure. The main difference between lung cancer and mesothelioma is that mesothelioma only affects the linings of organs, including the lungs. Lung cancer attacks the lung tissue itself. Both are very serious illnesses, and patients of either may benefit from surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. Unfortunately, lung cancer also has a poor prognosis in patients exposed to asbestos, because the asbestos itself is impossible to remove from the lungs.

Ovarian cancer

Asbestos exposure has been shown to cause ovarian cancer. It is not completely understood how asbestos fibers find their way into the reproductive tract, but it has been suggested that they may travel through the bloodstream and penetrate the mesothelium (lining of the body cavity).

Laryngeal cancer

Asbestos exposure can affect all parts of the respiratory tract, including the larynx (throat). Laryngeal cancer has been shown to be linked with asbestos exposure, but the evidence is not as strong as that connecting asbestos to other forms of cancer like mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis refers to noncancerous inflammation and scarring of the lungs, which can cause difficulty breathing, coughing, and chest pain. Symptoms of asbestosis can range from very mild to severe enough to require medical care or hospitalization. Once asbestosis begins, it may get worse, and it often does not appear initially until many years after asbestos exposure. Having asbestosis also puts you at higher risk for lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Pleural plaques

Pleural plaques are areas of fibrous thickening in the pleura, or the lining of the lungs. Pleural plaques are generally benign, meaning they do not make you actively sick, so patients can often live with pleural plaques for many years with no health problems. However, pleural plaques are also the first sign of asbestos exposure. So experiencing pleural plaques may be a sign of another asbestos-related illness to come.

Pleural effusion

Pleural effusion is the buildup of fluid in the area surrounding the lungs. It can cause difficulty breathing, chest pain, fever, or cough. However, pleural effusions often don’t cause any symptoms of their own but may accompany other illnesses of the lung like lung cancer. Pleural effusions can be diagnosed through a chest x-ray, a CT scan, or an ultrasound. Like pleural plaques, a pleural effusion may not be dangerous on its own but could be an indictor of a more serious illness that could occur later.

Diffuse pleural thickening

Pleural thickening is scarring that thickens the lining of the lungs, which can cause chest pain and issues breathing. It is not deadly on its own, but often occurs as a symptom of a more deadly disease like malignant pleural mesothelioma. While it is most commonly a result of asbestos exposure, it can also occur as the result of other conditions of the lungs such as a bacterial infection.

Pleurisy

Pleurisy (also called pleuritis) is a condition in which the pleural lining of the lungs becomes severely inflamed.  Pleurisy can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, cough, or fever. Much like diffuse pleural thickening, pleurisy can be caused by asbestos exposure or other conditions like infections or autoimmune conditions. While it’s not always a serious illness on its own, pleurisy may be an indicator of significant asbestos exposure and a warning sign of another illness.

Atelectasis

Atelectasis  is a condition in which inflammation and scarring of the pleural lining cause it to fold in on itself unnaturally, giving the lungs less space to inflate fully. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, sharp chest pain when breathing or coughing, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and even blue-colored skin, lips or fingernails (because of poor oxygen flow through the body). Atelectasis can be obstructive, in which a blockage develops in the airway, or nonobstructive in which the decreased airflow is not caused by an airway obstruction. Asbestos causes nonobstructive atelectasis. In patients exposed to asbestos, atelectasis most often is accompanied by other conditions like pleurisy, diffuse pleural thickening, pleural effusion, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.

How to identify asbestos

Unfortunately, asbestos is all around us, but is also largely undetectable unless you already know it is there. But there are some signs of asbestos that make it easier to identify if you know what you’re looking for. Here’s what to do when trying to identify asbestos:

  • Know the material: If you’re looking at a specific product or building and are wondering if it contains asbestos, try to figure out when it was manufactured or built. If it was made between the 1940’s and 1980’s it has a high risk of containing asbestos. Materials made in the 1980’s may have asbestos as well, since this was right at the beginning of efforts to phase out the material. Buildings built later than 1995 are unlikely to contain asbestos.
  • Know what to look for: Joints are often a telltale sign of asbestos in a building because of the characteristic corrugated aluminum runners used to join sheets of asbestos together. Other signs that might indicate asbestos use include a dimply pattern on surfaces or oily, shiny texture on walls.
  • Ask for help: A professional like a contractor or a building inspector can offer you the advice about asbestos in a building. They are trained in identifying dangerous materials in construction.  The only way to identify asbestos with certainty is to send a sample off to a laboratory for testing. If you are concerned about a substance, assume it is asbestos to be safe and avoid contact with the material. If you find asbestos, do not attempt to remove it without professional help.

Handling asbestos

The only appropriate and legal way to handle asbestos is to hire a professional. Not only does handling asbestos put yourself at risk, but improper handling and disposal of asbestos can put the general public at greater risk of being exposed. You may even find yourself in legal trouble if you dispose of asbestos improperly since asbestos removal generally requires specific permits.

licensed asbestos abatement professionals are primed with the skills and tools needed to remove and dispose of asbestos safely and legally. Here are some of the points that asbestos abatement professionals have to consider when removing asbestos.

  • Project planning: Asbestos is very dangerous, so it is not a good strategy to just run in and start pulling it from the walls and throwing it into trash bags. Professional plan their projects very carefully so they are aware of the size of the and the severity of the removal. This is also necessary to secure the appropriate permits for the project.
  • Working safely: The area to be treated must be sealed off with plastic sheeting, and negative air pressure units need to be in place to prevent any asbestos from contaminating clean air outside. Workers also need to wear protective clothing and industrial-grade respirators to protect themselves from exposure during the job. There are also protocols for safety in the work area, such as shutting off HVAC systems to minimize asbestos in the air and using a HEPA vacuum to clean up asbestos dust on immovable surfaces.
  • Disposal and decontamination: Asbestos must be disposed of very carefully. Materials are wetted to minimize the amount of dust that can fly into the air, and workers must continue to wear protective equipment and use the proper containers and landfills to dispose of the material. There are also protocols for decontamination to keep workers safe and prevent them from exposing their family to asbestos secondhand.

Recycling asbestos

Surprisingly, asbestos can actually be recycled into nontoxic materials and used again for safer products. There are several methods for recycling asbestos:

  • Heat: When asbestos is heated to very high temperature (over 1200 °C) which breaks down the fibers and transforms the material into a type of nontoxic glass. This can then be used in ceramics and stoneware or put into concrete.
  • Milling: When asbestos is very finely milled it becomes inert and nontoxic.

Recycling asbestos may be the future of asbestos removal because it has numerous benefits for workers and for the environment. Recycling asbestos provides a permanent solution to the asbestos problem and a safe place to dispose of asbestos materials. It also keeps asbestos from entering landfills and helps offset the cost of abatement by producing materials that can be used elsewhere instead of having to deal with high costs of hazardous materials exposure.

Safe alternatives to asbestos

Modern materials science has led to development of a number of alternative materials that can replace asbestos-containing products. Some of the safe alternatives to asbestos include:

  • Polyurethane foam: Polyurethane foam comes in a can like spray paint and works very well for roofing and insulation. It can also be mixed with plastics or rubber and used for flotation devices, car cloth, or theatre sets.
  • Cellulose fibers: This is the most widely accepted alternative to asbestos. This is because they are easy to make from old newsprint paper that is readily available, making them an ecologically friendly option.
  • Amorphous silica fabrics: These make excellent insulators because of their extreme heat resistance, so are best to replace high-heat uses of asbestos like in the electrical, aerospace, and shipyard industries.
  • Flour fillers: Flour made from pecan shells, rice hulls, and wheat can be used to make flour fillers. They make great insulating material for cracks and crevices in walls. And they are ecologically friendly and can be made at home by the average consumer.
  • PBI fiber: Polybenzimidazole (PBI) is used for personal protective equipment (PPE) for firemen, astronauts who need protection from extreme temperatures.

Protecting your family from asbestos

Thankfully, asbestos is much more closely regulated than it was many years ago. There are laws in place protecting workers from asbestos-related risks. Families can product themselves further by taking precautions against known exposure routes. For example, if somebody in your household works close to asbestos, they should try to leave contaminated clothes at the job site and shower before returning home.

Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to avoid casual asbestos exposure since there is so much of it around us. However, this level of exposure is less likely to cause long term health effects. As with any hazard, the best strategy for protecting yourself is staying aware. Articles like this one provide all the information you need to know your risks and know how to protect yourself and your loved ones from asbestos exposure and related illnesses.

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