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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 (not the U.S.), 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.
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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 in the US 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 in 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.
Asbestos and the US Military
About one-third of all mesothelioma victims in this country are military veterans. That's because asbestos was used extensively in every branch of military service, appearing to perfectly fit 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.
Find more about asbestos exposure in the U.S. Military
Veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness can be eligible for VA benefits. Contact the Mesothelioma Center's Veterans Department 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 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.
Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer – diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually – caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. It involves the thin lining that surrounds organs in the chest and abdomen and kills an American every 3.4 hours.
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.
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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, 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 Borel's case, workers around the country began seeking compensation from manufacturers that knowingly exposed their employees to the dangers of asbestos.
Between 1982 and 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. Analysts have predicted that the number of asbestos filings will ultimately top 1 million. As of 2013, the number of asbestos defendants had grown to over 10,000 companies.
Around 100 companies have responded to mounting asbestos claims by filing for bankruptcy. As part of bankruptcy protection, many of these companies have established asbestos trusts to compensate future litigants. According to the Government Accountability Office, these trusts have $37 billion in assets.
Because there are no federal laws concerning asbestos litigation, 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, Ga., 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 use 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 were 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).
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, creating a demand for commercial asbestos mining. 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 wasn't far behind, using it in brakes, clutches and all friction products.
Because of the prevalence of use, exposure and a growing movement away from using asbestos, finding a suitable substitute became paramount for many manufacturers worldwide. There are a handful of alternatives. The most common are polyurethane foam, amorphous silica fabric, thermoset plastic flour, flour fillers and cellulose fiber.
Polyurethane foam provides effective insulation and is often used as an alternative to asbestos. Often found in spray form, this material can be used in a variety of applications. Builders, contractors and manufacturers are the most common users of polyurethane foam because of its wide commercial benefits.
Polyurethane foam is affordably priced for its function and provides more value than other alternatives. Its composition also can be adjusted depending on the preferred use. This flexibility allows it to be an essential resource for multiple tasks. It is sometimes referred to as the "king of building materials for multitasking." One form of this material, known as flexible polyurethane foam, is used more frequently in consumer products. These products include furniture, bedding, carpet cushion, packaging and automotive parts.
Amorphous silica fabric
Amorphous silica fabric is a high-quality cloth woven from nearly pure amorphous silica fibers. The fibers do not rot or mildew, nor do they burn. They are also highly heat resistant. Unlike asbestos, amorphous silica fabrics are able to achieve similar levels of insulation and fire resistance without causing deadly diseases. This material can be used for high-temperature insulation, application protection and thermal protection. It can be found in the industries of shipbuilding, automotive services, electrical, aerospace and metallurgy.
Amorphous silica fabrics are not commonly used for residential purposes. The variety of commercial applications of this material is what allows it to be a great substitute for asbestos.
Thermoset plastic flour
Thermoset plastic flour comes from finely ground wood flour mixed with binders, such as egg or gelatin, hardened and then finely ground. It provides similar benefits to asbestos without putting the user at risk, making its use widespread in construction. It cannot be melted down completely, but can be used to make another material such as polyurethane foam. Even when heated, it retains its chemical composition. These factors allow thermoset plastic to provide tremendous benefits for various industries.
It is considered cost-effective, and thermoset plastics also work well in an electrical or mechanical setting. Often filled with wood flour, thermoset plastic flour provides insulation benefits. It also can be well-suited for high temperatures and may be used as an adhesive.
To fill in the cracks and crevices in a structure, flour fillers may be used as an alternative to asbestos filler because they contain some natural materials that provide many of the same characteristics. Flour fillers can come in various types, including rice flour, pecan shell, wheat flour and others. This asbestos substitute may be difficult to get because it is not as widely distributed as some other alternatives.
Walnut shell flours and grit can be used to make resins, veneers, laminated lumber and can be used in manufacturing rubber and paint products. They are also used in some cosmetics. This type of flour filler is also used for adhesives and plywood manufacturing.
Rice hull flour is used to extend applications that require a high silica content, and corn cob flour is a lightweight extender. Other flour fillers are: pecan shell flour, rice flour, wheat flour, rice hulls and rice hull ash.
Chemically treated to enhance its properties, cellulose fiber is often made from cotton, wood pulp, linen or shredded paper products. It is considered one of the more frequently used asbestos alternatives. Cellulose fiber contains adhesive characteristics and is often made to be water-soluble. It is a major component in cement.
These cements are used in a variety of applications, including roofing and plumbing. The cements are used to seal and help insulate high- and low-pressure pipes, water heaters, storage tank and gutters, among other products.
A common use of this fiber is to make drywall. Even some Chinese drywall manufacturers, many of whom sell products to U.S. companies for distribution, have switched from using asbestos cement to using fiber-based cement to make wall and ceiling coverings.
One form of cellulose fiber is autoclaved cellulose fiber-reinforced cement. Pulp and waste paper are used to form the fiber and then mixed with ground silica sand, fly ash or both. After an autoclaving heating process, the mixture becomes more heat-resistant.
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