Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral with thin, needle-like fibers. “Asbestos” doesn’t refer to one type of mineral—there are six types of asbestos recognized by the United States government, which we’ll get into later. Asbestos can be pulled to a fluffy consistency. It also is very resistant to heat, electricity, and corrosion, and is soft and flexible. These properties make it very useful for construction. Asbestos is a good insulator and can be used in many things to make them stronger including cloth, paper, cement and plastic. It seems so useful, so why is asbestos banned in many countries? Because of its dangers.
Asbestos fibers are tiny; in fact, they are microscopic. When someone inhales or ingests asbestos dust, these fibers get trapped in their lungs indefinitely. Over decades, these fibers cause inflammation, scarring and eventually genetic damage to the cells. This causes disease. One rare and aggressive cancer, called mesothelioma, is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. But that’s not the only disease caused by asbestos. Asbestos causes multiple forms of cancer and progressive lung disease. These microscopic fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. It is unsafe to sniff material suspecting of being or containing asbestos. The asbestos doesn’t care why you sniff it, the fibers get stuck in your lungs whenever inhaled.
Along with mesothelioma, asbestos has definite connections to some types of lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and laryngeal cancer. Asbestos related diseases include asbestosis, pleural effusions, pleural plaques, pleuritis, diffuse pleural thickening, and COPD.
The term ‘asbestos’ refers to multiple naturally occurring minerals which all contain the same fibrous nature. Three of the six asbestos types recognized by the US government have nicknames—white, brown, and blue asbestos. There are two categories of asbestos. These categories are outlined in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, or AHERA. There is the category Amphibole asbestos which contains: Crocidolite (blue), Amosite (brown), Anthophyllite, Tremolite, and Actinolite. The other category is Serpentine asbestos, a category which only contains Chrysotile, also called white asbestos.
Scientifically, the category ‘asbestos’ goes beyond the six types recognized by the US government. Other forms of asbestos may exist that are just as dangerous as these recognized types. In 2008 a legislation was introduced that would have extended the definition of asbestos to include other amphibole minerals like winchite and richterite. The legislation didn’t pass, just like every other attempt to restrict asbestos use since AHERA in 1986.
Where is asbestos found? There are natural asbestos deposits all around the world. This toxic mineral used to be mined in North America. Now, because asbestos’ danger is so well known, there are not nearly as many countries mining it as there used to be. There aren’t as many customers, either! Now the main asbestos exporters are Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. To make raw asbestos, companies crush asbestos ore to separate out all the minerals. Then the asbestos minerals are processed until it has a soft and woolly consistency. This pure form of asbestos can be put in cloth, felt, paper and rope in order to make the product stronger. Asbestos fibers have in the past also been mixed into cement, drywall, paints, plastics, sealants and adhesives.
No amount of asbestos exposure is safe. But because every exposure adds up, people who have been exposed to asbestos on a regular basis for a long time—or those who had an intense exposure—are more likely to get asbestos related disease. With every exposure, more and more asbestos accumulates in the body. There is no known way to reverse the cellular damage it causes. The majority of patients with asbestos related disease are men in their 60s or older. Asbestos related diseases have an extremely long latency period; often the disease takes decades to develop. Most times, these asbestos illnesses can be traced back to occupational asbestos exposure at workplaces which were historically staffed by men.
Where is asbestos exposure most common? Due to the far less common use of asbestos, and many regulations, not nearly as many people are exposed to asbestos now as there used to be. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, about 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979. Now, the number is much lower, but there still is a risk for many workers. Those working in the fields of construction, electricity generation, firefighting, heavy industry, military service, mining, and shipbuilding have a higher risk of asbestos exposure than the general population.
Here’s a scary fact—occupational exposure is the number one cause of asbestos disease. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the US military used asbestos extensively, especially in building ships for the Navy. Because of this, veterans have to bear an excessive burden of asbestos related disease. Family members of people working in the asbestos industry also have a higher risk of developing an asbestos related disease due to something called second hand exposure. This is when the worker, often unknowingly, brings home asbestos fiber on his or her clothes, tools, hair, or whatever else he or she brought home from the workplace. Yet another way for someone to have a lot of asbestos exposure is living near an asbestos-contaminated mine or processing facility. Work sites related to the asbestos industry have existed all over the United States. One such facility is in Ambler, Pennsylvania, and there are others at landmarks such as Grand Central Station. One of the worst environmental disaster in US history was caused by years of vermiculite mining near Libby, Montana. The ore contained trace amounts of asbestos, contaminating the surrounding area for miles. This eventually caused the death of hundreds of Libby’s residents.
Today when Americans are exposed to asbestos, it is usually through renovation or demolition work on an old building that still contains legacy asbestos products. Many asbestos products have been discontinued. These products are: vinyl asbestos tiles, asbestos cement, asbestos roofing felt, asbestos reinforced plastics, asbestos adhesives, sealants, and coatings. According to a rule released by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in early 2019, before these discontinued uses of asbestos are allowed to be sold again, manufacturers must get government approval.
How can you locate asbestos in the home? Without a label, the only way to detect asbestos is to have someone test the material. You cannot tell that there is asbestos because someone in your family is sick; asbestos does not cause immediate symptoms, rather it takes decades for anything to happen, way after you can do anything to stop it. Many American buildings which were constructed before 1980 contain asbestos. There are many forms of asbestos material. Unless a product is marked clearly, you have no way other than testing to tell whether or not it contains asbestos.
There are two main types of asbestos material, one which needs to be immediately taken care of, and the other which is more durable. The first is friable asbestos materials. These are easy to break and crumble by hand. Some examples of this are asbestos pipe insulation, and talcum powder contaminated with asbestos. Friable asbestos materials are very dangerous because the asbestos fibers can easily get released into the air and then find their way into your lungs. Then there are non friable asbestos materials. The materials in this category are durable, stuff like asbestos cement slabs and vinyl asbestos tiles. The durability of these materials keeps the asbestos fibers in the material and out of your lungs. As long as these products are left undisturbed, they are relatively safe. It is never safe or okay in any way to smash, saw or scrape materials containing asbestos.
The use of asbestos goes back to ancient times, but in the US, asbestos use was at its peak very recently, during the middle decades of the 20th century. In the late 1800s, the mining of asbestos became a major industry. The Industrial Revolution was going on, creating a high demand for pipe and boiler insulation. With this new opportunity, industrialists found many ways to use the cheap and abundant mineral by mixing it into a range of different construction materials.
Ever since the beginning of this modern asbestos industry, the doctors recorded asbestos exposure’s fatal effects. As early as the 1930s, business executives quietly researched the issue, discovering for themselves it’s cancer-causing property. It is maddening how long this intense asbestos use continued, knowing people knew the harm involved. It’s all because there was a business motive behind it. Enormous profits were being made for the asbestos companies by selling insulation to shipbuilders during the second World War. During the postwar building boom, they expanded their business further. In the year 1973, the US used 803,000 metric tons of asbestos. That was the country’s peak level of asbestos use. Compare it to the 750 metric tons which were used in 2018. It’s still a lot, but not anywhere near as much.
Now, when Americans are exposed to asbestos, it is usually through demolition or renovation work on an old building that still contains ‘legacy asbestos’, asbestos which was put in the building before the many asbestos regulations were passed. Globally, millions of people are exposed to asbestos from mines, factories and construction sites. The asbestos industry has forceful lobbyist organizations protecting its interests.
Don’t think there aren’t alternatives to asbestos—several safer substitutes (such as polyurethane foam, amorphous silica fabric, thermoset plastic flour, and cellulose fiber) have been found while manufacturers have been phasing out asbestos use.
Polyurethane foam is both cheap and effective for insulation. It can be easily applied by construction workers because it is a spray which insulates and seals buildings. Manufacturers frequently use this foam in furniture, packaging, and automotive parts.
Amorphous silica fabric is a high quality woven cloth, woven from nearly pure amorphous silica fibers. These fibers have the good qualities of asbestos—they don’t rot or burn and are highly heat resistant. This fabric is used in the automotive, shipbuilding, aerospace, electrical and metallurgy industries.
Thermoset plastic flour is used as a filler for moldable plastics and adhesives. It shares similar properties with asbestos, but isn’t dangerous. It is made of wood fibers and binders like egg or gelatin, which is hardened and then ground into a fine powder.
Cellulose fiber is generally made with cotton, shredded paper, wood pulp, or linen. The material is chemically treated in order to enhance its properties. Cellulose fiber cement is commonly used in the place of asbestos cement for high-temperature insulation, siding, and roofing.
The first successful asbestos lawsuit was won in 1973. Since then, many asbestos lawsuits have taken place, making asbestos litigation the longest running mass tort in US history. Many families have sought compensation for illness caused by the negligence of the asbestos industry. Even though the US never actually banned asbestos, many forms of asbestos products were stopped, all because of liability.
Due to the dangers of asbestos, most developed nations, including Japan and the countries of the European Union and totalling 66 countries as of March 2019, slightly over a third of the world’s countries, have banned asbestos. Scarily, the US is not on the list, although asbestos is highly regulated in America. The toxic mineral is not entirely out of use, and is still used abundantly in multiple countries such as China, Russia, Mexico and India.