Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that once was lauded for its versatility, recognized for its heat resistance, tensile strength and insulating properties and used for everything from fire-proof vests to home and commercial construction. It was woven into fabric, and mixed with cement.
Its properties were so desired that the United States military mandated its use in every branch of service. Asbestos was a perfect blend to make things better – except it was highly toxic, too. Today asbestos is a known cause of mesothelioma cancer, is banned in more than 50 countries, and its use has been dramatically restricted in others.
Types of Asbestos
There are six types of asbestos minerals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. Although all commercial forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, there are differences in their chemical compositions.
Exposure to Asbestos
More than 75 different types of jobs in America have been known to expose workers to asbestos, according to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. At the same time, an estimated 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases are military veterans, an indication of where the worst damage has been done.
Occupations in the construction industry have been hit the hardest, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Plumbers, pipefitters, steam fitters and electricians were the most vulnerable to asbestos-related diseases. The occurrence in both the shipbuilding and the electrical power industries also has been abnormally high. A little more than 80 percent of those stricken have been males.
While the majority of asbestos-related illnesses each year can be traced to occupational exposure – an estimated 107,000 workers annually according to the World Health Organization – there are others at risk, too.
Many exposures are second-hand exposures, families of workers who inadvertently bring the deadly fibers home with them, leaving those around them vulnerable, too.
Homes and apartments built before 1980 often are filled with asbestos, needing only normal wear and tear with age to dislodge the fibers and send them airborne. Asbestos can be found in floor tiles, roofs, furnaces, plumbing, appliances, fireplaces and window caulking, leaving most everyone vulnerable.
Asbestos and the U.S. Military
There is a good reason why about one-third of all mesothelioma victims in this country once served in the military. Asbestos was used extensively in every branch of military service, perfectly fitting the needs of the Armed Forces.
Lauded for its fire-proofing and insulating capabilities, asbestos was ubiquitous in military life. Ships, tanks, aircraft and trucks all contained asbestos. It was used for construction, maintenance and repair. Military bases were covered with asbestos-containing materials.
Veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos related illness can be eligible for VA benefits. Contact the Mesothelioma Center's Veterans Assistance Program to check on your eligibility or get benefits and claims questions answered.
From the 1930s through the mid-1970s, asbestos was a major part of military life, but nowhere was it more prevalent and toxic than in the Navy, where ships and submarines used it from end to end.
More than 300 asbestos-containing materials were utilized by the Navy, making it almost impossible to avoid the exposure. From the engine and boiler rooms, to the sleeping quarters and mess halls, asbestos was everywhere in the Navy, both above and below the decks.
Asbestos Related Diseases
Mesothelioma is a rare but highly aggressive cancer – diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually – caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. It primarily involves the thin lining that surrounds organs in the chest and abdomen and kills someone every 3.4 hours.
Mesothelioma is a rare but highly aggressive cancer – diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually
The first diagnosis that conclusively linked mesothelioma to asbestos exposure didn't come until 1964, but the trouble started long before then. Mesothelioma first was mentioned clinically in 1921, describing primary tumors of the pleura, the membrane surrounding the lungs.
In 1924, the first diagnosis of asbestosis – a lung disease characterized by a scarring caused by asbestos fibers – was made. In the 1930s, major medical journals published articles linking other cancers to asbestos. In England, labor laws were passed in the 1930s that required companies to increase ventilation where asbestos was used.
Asbestos exposure can also cause lung cancer. It is the second-most common cancer in the United States. The risk of it is increased for smokers whose immune system is weakened by the tobacco product and making them more vulnerable to the asbestos fibers.
Several studies in the United States, as early as 1917, began noting the large number of illnesses and deaths in towns where asbestos mining was prevalent, yet little was done to regulate or slow the production.
Clarence Borel didn't live to see it happen – he died three years before from mesothelioma cancer – but in 1973 he became the first plaintiff to hold a manufacturer of asbestos liable for injuries caused by its product. It was like opening the flood gates.
Attorney Ward Stephenson filed the lawsuit in the Eastern District of Texas against 11 asbestos manufacturers on Borel's behalf, asking for $1 million. Borel had worked for 30 years in the shipyards and oil refineries along the Texas-Louisiana coast. In 1969, he was diagnosed originally with asbestosis and later mesothelioma.
Buoyed by the success of the Borel's case, workers around the country began seeking compensation from manufacturers who knowingly exposed their employees to the dangers of asbestos.
From 1982 to 2002, the number of claimants in asbestos lawsuits increased from 1,000 to 730,000. The number of companies being sued went from 300 to 8,400. Many companies that were defendants were pushed into bankruptcy, crushed by the amount of litigation related to asbestos use. As part of bankruptcy protection, companies established asbestos trusts, where $37 billion remain today, according to the Government Accountability Office, to compensate future litigants.
Because there are no federal laws concerning asbestos legislation, each state has handled cases separately. And legislation has varied. Some states have restricted claims and rights of individuals, capping the amount an individual can receive, while others have not.
Mining of Asbestos
Fueled by the beginning of the industrial revolution, the first asbestos mines in the United States opened in Sall Mountain, Georgia, in the late 1800s. The last mine closed in California in 2002. It took more than 100 years to fully understand just how deadly this mineral could be.
Although still being produced and used extensively today in other parts of the world, asbestos has been declining in the United States since its peak in 1973 when a record 137,000 metric tons were mined. According to a U.S. Geological Survey, a record 803,000 metric tons were consumed that year in the U.S., and much of it was imported from Canada.
Although consumption almost has disappeared in the United States – less than 900 tons consumed in 2009 – there still were 2 million tons produced worldwide that same year. The most ever mined were 4.77 million tons in 1977.
The most notorious mine within the United States borders was operated by W.R. Grace Company in Libby, Montana, where thousands of illnesses and deaths have been attributed to asbestos exposure. The vermiculite mine turned into an environmental disaster, designated as a SuperFund site in 2002, then declared a public health emergency in 2009 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).Learn about the history of importing and exporting asbestos
History of Asbestos
The use of asbestos dates back thousands of years. The Greeks used asbestos in the wicks of the eternal flames. Ancient Egyptians embalmed their pharaohs with garments woven with asbestos fibers. The early Romans used napkins and tablecloths made with asbestos and tossed them into fires to be cleaned. They marveled that they came out whiter than before. Asbestos was found in pottery dating to the Stone Age.
Charlemagne used it to impress his guests. Marco Polo found it in China. Yet at the same time, slaves who wove the magical fabrics developed diseases of the lungs.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s caused a significant boom, effectively creating a demand for commercial asbestos mines. Factories became a major part of cities, making products for all walks of life. Many of the products utilized or required asbestos.
The railroad and shipbuilding industries started using it extensively, to insulate steam engines and fire-proof all sea-going vessels. The automobile industry, in the early 1900s, wasn't far behind, using it in brakes, clutches and all friction products.
Asbestos in the United States and the World Today
Asbestos isn't banned in either the United States or Canada. In fact, Canada is the world's second-most prolific producer of the mineral, exporting it to heavy use countries like India and China. Indian government officials support the asbestos industry because many of them state publicly that the mineral is not toxic, or at least not toxic under certain levels of exposure. The construction industry in India continues to use asbestos products while building houses, apartment buildings and office buildings.
In addition, the ongoing use of it in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa continues at an alarming pace, ensuring that there is no end in sight to the serious, long-term health issues it causes.
The steady, world-wide decline in production leveled off in 1999 – with 1.8 million tons. The demand for asbestos in the next decade was stronger than the efforts to impose a world-wide ban. There are still more than 2 million metric tons produced every year.
Yet the lingering effects of asbestos remain. People are still dying – 43,000 annually according to the World Health Organization. The long latency period (it can be anywhere from 10 to 50 years between exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma) has contributed to an uncertain future for many. In the United States, almost anything constructed before 1980 is likely to contain some form of asbestos. Developing countries are still building with asbestos products.
There still are an estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed annually in the U.S. and more than 10,000 cases in Australia, Japan, and Western Europe combined each year, according to a recent bulletin from the World Health Organization.
Free Books about Asbestos and Mesothelioma
The Mesothelioma Center offers four free books about asbestos and the diseases the mineral causes, including 100 Questions & Answers about Mesothelioma and Surviving Mesothelioma. Check off the books you want on this form and the books will be sent to you overnight.