It is probable that many people have heard of asbestos in one way or another. The substance has recently crept its way back into the news, but, even before that, asbestos is generally known as something bad that should be avoided at all costs. This, of course, is true. Asbestos is bad for you and there’s no recommended level of safe exposure to it.
But, what is asbestos exactly? To put it simply, asbestos is a natural mineral composed of magnesium-silicate fibers that was known for its flame-retardant and heat-resistant capabilities. Of course, it later came to be known as hazardous carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). But, there’s a lot more to this mineral than these basic facts.
What is Asbestos?
As noted above, asbestos is a mineral that has natural fireproofing characteristics. In the early 1900s, its fire-resistant properties became well-known, and the substance began entering consumer and industrial products shortly thereafter.
By 1910, nearly 110,000 metric tons of asbestos had been used in products throughout the world. By 1973, the United States alone accounted for over 800,000 metric tons of asbestos.
There are six types of asbestos, although not all of them were routinely used in consumer products.
These six include:
Here is a key distinction about what constitutes asbestos. There is no single mineral that you can point to and call “asbestos.” Instead, asbestos refers to these six legally recognized “asbestiform” minerals. There are actually other minerals (like richterite and winchite) that could also be considered forms of asbestos, but the United States government has not legally recognized them as such.
Each of these six minerals falls into one of two broader categories: serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile is the only member of the serpentine class while the other five are considered amphibole minerals (as are richterite and winchite).
Chrysotile (also known as “white asbestos”) is the most common type of asbestos found in products and building materials. In fact, up to 95% of all building materials that still contain asbestos are of the chrysotile variety. It was often used in insulation in buildings, machinery, and marine vessels to avoid catastrophic fires. Chrysotile asbestos can also be found in fire blankets, drywall, brake pads, and many other products.
Crocidolite (or “blue asbestos”) is generally considered the most dangerous type of the mineral. It is often harder, less malleable, and easier to break, meaning that it can enter the atmosphere and be inhaled more easily.
The microscopic fibers of crocidolite are also longer, making it easier for them to embed themselves in human tissues. Fortunately, this type of asbestos was only used in about 1.3% of commercial products. It was occasionally used in roofing tiles and insulation products, but it was more frequently applied in corrosive settings.
Amosite (or “brown asbestos”) was originally mined for in South Africa and was, at one point, the second-most common type of asbestos. Governments throughout the world targeted amosite for bans because it is similar in nature to the dangerous crocidolite. It was used in insulation products, but also found its way into soundproofing and anti-condensation materials. Commercial production of amosite is largely dead and the substance has been banned in most countries for nearly 3 decades.
Tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite varieties are found in low quantities in nature and are not often used in commercial products. Tremolite can be found occasionally in vermiculite mines, talc, and even chrysotile asbestos. It is also mined for in India and was rarely included in insulation materials.
Anthophyllite likewise was rarely found in many products outside of the occasional use in cement and insulation materials. Actinolite is rare and can be found in metamorphic rock, but was almost never used in commercial products in the United States.
Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos regulation began in earnest in the 1970s, and, since then, the amount of asbestos in buildings and products has decreased dramatically. Still, asbestos is not fully banned in the United States (it can still be imported) and many older buildings have yet to be excised of all remaining asbestos. But, what makes asbestos so dangerous in the first place?
When asbestos fibers are disturbed in any way, they have a tendency to become airborne and they can stay in the ambient air for up to an hour or more. Anyone located near these airborne fibers can take them into their bodies in one of two ways: inhalation or ingestion. The most common way to take in asbestos is via inhalation. The other method, ingestion, typically occurs when an individual coughs up airborne fibers they have already inhaled and ends up swallowing them later on.
In any event, the microscopic fibers can embed themselves in tissues and tissue linings. Most notably, they embed themselves in the pleura, or the membranous lining of the lungs. The effects of this will likely not be readily apparent. In some cases, the body can also filter out these foreign particles. But, the fibers that stay lodged in the body can produce inflammation and irritation over a long period of time.
The DNA in the inflamed tissues can start to mutate, which, in turn, causes the formation of tumors and cancerous cells. In other cases, pleural plaques (scar tissue) start to form or fluid begins to build up (pleural effusion) making it difficult for individuals to breathe. It can take decades for the true danger of asbestos to rear its ugly head.
Asbestos can cause a variety of diseases and conditions that may significantly dampen an individual’s quality of life. Some diseases, like mesothelioma, are life-threatening. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer known to be caused exclusively by asbestos exposure.
There are three main types of the disease:
- Pleural – occurs in the lining of the lungs and accounts for between 70 and 90% of all cases.
- Peritoneal – occurs in the lining of the peritoneal (or abdominal) cavity and accounts for 10 to 30% of all cases
- Pericardial – affects the lining of the heart (pericardium) and accounts for only around 1% of all known cases
Mesothelioma is known to be extremely deadly, with most patients only surviving 12 to 21 months after diagnosis. Of course, it can take symptoms 10 to 50 years to start developing. So, someone who was exposed to asbestos in the 1970s might incur a diagnosis in the 2020s.
There is no statistical amount of asbestos exposure that is required to produce mesothelioma.
Some individuals work closely with the substance their whole lives and never develop the disease while others may have only experienced exposure over a 3-year period and developed the disease anyway. There is no safe amount of exposure to any type of asbestos fibers.
Other major malignant diseases that asbestos can cause include:
- Lung cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Ovarian cancer
It can also produce a cavalcade of non-life-threatening but still dangerous diseases like:
- Asbestosis – scar tissue forms on the lining of the lungs producing plaques and making it difficult for patients to breathe
- Chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder (COPD) – Although not caused by asbestos directly, the development of COPD can be facilitated by the substance
- Pleuritis – inflammation of the lining of the lungs
- Atelactasis – condition that causes scarring, inflammation, and the folding of lung tissues. It causes difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
- Pleural effusion – fluid buildup in the pleural cavity
- Ascites – fluid buildup in the peritoneal cavity
- Pleural plaques – thick, calcified scar tissue that may impede breathing
Virtually all of these less serious conditions can end up being precursors to mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other major diseases. So, if you have these issues and are concerned about your past exposure to asbestos, then it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor about it.
Where is Asbestos?
Prior to the 1980s, asbestos could be found in a variety of consumer and industrial products throughout the United States. Exposure to asbestos most often occurred in occupational settings.
These days, regulations have significantly curbed exposure to asbestos at work or in the home. But, past exposure can still hurt you in the present. Beyond that, asbestos products still remain untouched in many old buildings.
In the past, asbestos was found in abundance in places like:
- Shipyards and ships
- Construction sites
- Power plants
- Industrial plants
- Oil refineries
- Auto repair shops
There was virtually no walk of life in which you could fully escape the reach of asbestos. Again, asbestos’ value came from its ability to thwart fires and overheating. It was seen as a breakthrough material for the safety of virtually everyone. Unfortunately, it also happened to be toxic to the human body.
Products that contained (and some that still contain) asbestos include:
- Automotive parts (brake pads and linings, etc.)
- Fire blankets
- Fireproof clothes
- Electrical wiring
- Caulking materials
- Roofing tiles
- Flooring tiles
- Potting soils
- Machinery and equipment like engines and boilers
In addition to all of that, many building materials and other products were coated with spray-on asbestos veneers as a fireproofing technique. Spray-on coatings were also extremely dangerous because it deliberately infused the ambient air with asbestos fibers.
Today, asbestos can only be imported into the United States. Products that are imported cannot be composed of more than 1% asbestos. The substance cannot be manufactured, processed, or extracted in the United States.
New products that still contain asbestos include:
- Brake pads
- Brake linings
- Clutch linings
- Certain plastics
Who is At Risk for Asbestos Exposure?
Again, exposure to asbestos at work is one of the primary causes of major asbestos-related illnesses later in life. Individuals who worked in fields that were rife with asbestos are at a higher risk. For instance, someone who worked in an asbestos mine is at an extremely high risk of developing major asbestos-related illnesses.
Other professions include:
- Construction workers
- Shipyard workers
- Power plant workers
- Oil refinery workers
- Industrial plant workers
- Factory workers
Veterans make up roughly 30% of all those diagnosed with mesothelioma. Military buildings and, particularly, marine vessels often contained large quantities of asbestos, which accounts for such a high rate of occurrence among veterans. Many former military members went on to civilian jobs that further exposed them to the substance.
Still, individuals who worked closely with asbestos aren’t the only ones at risk. Secondhand exposure can occur when someone brings asbestos fibers home on their clothes and inadvertently ends up exposing their family and friends to the substance. Additionally, people who live near facilities that produce a lot of asbestos may also be at risk.
How to Avoid Asbestos
On most job sites and in civilian life, asbestos has been largely phased out in the United States. The few new products that still contain asbestos do not pose a high risk of becoming airborne. Still, buildings that haven’t been renovated since the 1970s may still contain high quantities of asbestos.
If you’re thinking of buying or renovating a home that hasn’t been updated since the 1970s, then it’s important to call in an asbestos removal specialist. Only a qualified specialist can get rid of asbestos in homes, offices, or any other building without causing contamination to themselves or others. This is true even for construction sites. An asbestos removal specialist legally must ensure that construction sites are free of asbestos before any construction or renovation can begin.
If you believe your employer is not following asbestos regulations, then it’s important to contact the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Remember that any exposure to asbestos is a threat to your health and safety, and you should never be asked to work under potentially hazardous conditions.
For the most part, companies have replaced asbestos with non-toxic alternatives.
These alternatives include:
- Thermoset plastic flour
- Flour fillers
- Polyurethane foam
- Amorphous silica fabrics
- Cellulose fiber
The question “what is asbestos?” clearly does not have a simple answer. The mineral has a complex history. It was once thought of as a godsend, but we now know that it is far from it. We can only hope that asbestos will become a thing of the past at some point in the near future.