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Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals composed of thin, needle-like fibers. Exposure to asbestos causes several cancers and diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Although asbestos strengthens and fireproofs materials, it is banned in many countries. Asbestos is not banned in the United States.

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Watch: Find out how asbestos exposure happens and why it's dangerous.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral composed of soft and flexible fibers that are resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities make the mineral useful, but they also make asbestos exposure highly toxic.

Asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can be used in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger. But when asbestos dust is inhaled or ingested, mineral fibers can become permanently trapped in the body.

Over decades, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and eventually genetic damage. A rare and aggressive cancer called mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos also causes other forms of cancer as well as progressive lung disease.

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Types of Asbestos

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 legally recognizes six types of asbestos that fall into two categories: Amphibole and serpentine.

Crocidolite asbestos fibers
Crocidolite asbestos is also commonly known as “blue asbestos.”

Amphibole Asbestos

Amphibole asbestos fibers have a straight, jagged shape. There are five recognized types:

  • Crocidolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite
Chrysotile asbestos fibers
This sample from Canada shows the curly structure of chrysotile asbestos.

Serpentine Asbestos

Serpentine asbestos fibers are curly. There is only one kind: Chrysotile, which is also known as “white asbestos.”

  • Chrysotile
Learn More About Types of Asbestos

Where Does Asbestos Come From?

Although asbestos comes from all over the world, the main exporters are Russia, Kazakhstan and China. The toxic mineral was once mined throughout North America.

Asbestos may be found in large deposits or as contaminates in other minerals such as talc and vermiculite. Chrysotile asbestos is usually found as veins within serpentine rock.

While most commercial asbestos deposits contain 5% to 6% asbestos, some deposits, such as the Coalinga deposit in California, contain 50% or more asbestos.

Asbestos fibers exposed in a serpentine rock
A vein of chrysotile asbestos in serpentine rock.

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Scientific studies show exposure to asbestos is linked to several diseases, including cancers.

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. The mineral also causes asbestos-related lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.

Other asbestos-related diseases include:

  • Asbestosis
  • Pleural effusions
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleuritis
  • Diffuse pleural thickening
  • COPD

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Asbestos Exposure Risks

No amount of asbestos exposure is safe, but asbestos generally has the worst effects when a person is exposed to an intense concentration of it, or they are exposed on a regular basis over a long period of time.

Asbestos accumulates in the body with every exposure, and there is no known way to reverse the damage it causes.

Fibers are easily inhaled once they become airborne. It is important to avoid disturbing products that may contain asbestos. Additionally, people who live near naturally occurring asbestos deposits should avoid disturbing soil that may be contaminated.

The majority of patients with asbestos-related diseases are men in their 60s or older. This is because asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period, often taking decades to develop. They usually trace back to occupational exposure at workplaces historically staffed by men.

Asbestos-Related Occupations

The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry shows about 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979. Regulations have reduced the risk of exposure in the workplace, but a degree of risk remains for many occupations.

Asbestos Manufacturing High-Risk Occupations

  • Construction
  • Electricity Generation
  • Firefighting
  • Military Service
  • Mining
  • Shipbuilding
  • Heavy Industry

The U.S. military used asbestos extensively from the 1930s to the 1970s, especially on Navy ships, causing veterans to bear a disproportionate burden of asbestos-related disease.

Family members of veterans and other asbestos industry workers also have an elevated risk of developing an asbestos-related disease because of secondhand exposure.

Living in the vicinity of an asbestos-contaminated mine or processing facility puts individuals at risk of environmental exposure. Asbestos industry work sites have existed across the United States, such as in the town of Ambler, Pennsylvania, and at landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal in New York.

For example, decades of vermiculite mining near the Superfund site at Libby, Montana, caused one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The ore contained traces of asbestos that contaminated the surrounding area for miles, eventually causing the deaths of hundreds of Libby residents.

FAST FACT

Occupational asbestos exposure is the No. 1 cause of mesothelioma. Learn about the latest mesothelioma treatments, how to find top doctors and clinical trial eligibility in your free guide.

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Asbestos Products

When Americans are exposed to asbestos today, it is usually through renovation or demolition work on an old building that still contains legacy asbestos products.

A 2019 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule states manufacturers must seek government approval before selling discontinued uses of asbestos.

Discontinued asbestos products

  • Vinyl asbestos tiles
  • Asbestos cement
  • Asbestos roofing felt
  • Asbestos adhesives, sealants and coatings
  • Asbestos reinforced plastics
Vinyl floor tiles containing asbestos made by Kentile

Asbestos Suppliers and Manufacturers

Hundreds of manufacturers used asbestos insulation in steam engines, piping and locomotives. Thousands of other uses later emerged, and companies began putting it in products such as boilers, gaskets, cement, roofing materials and automotive brake pads.

LEADING ASBESTOS COMPANIES

  • Johns Manville
  • W.R. Grace & Co.
  • Pittsburgh Corning
  • Armstrong World Industries
Johns-Manville brake lining set made with asbestos

How to Identify Asbestos Products

Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. Unless it is clearly marked as asbestos, the only way to detect asbestos in an unmarked material is to send a sample to a lab for testing or hire an accredited asbestos inspector.

Asbestos materials fall into two risk categories:

Deteriorated pipe insulation containing friable asbestos

Friable asbestos materials

Friable asbestos materials are easy to break or crumble by hand. Examples include old asbestos pipe insulation and talcum powder contaminated with asbestos. These materials are dangerous because they can easily release toxic dust into the air.

Broken slab of concrete containing nonfriable asbestos

Nonfriable asbestos materials

Nonfriable asbestos materials, such as asbestos cement slabs and vinyl asbestos tiles, are durable. These products keep asbestos fibers safely trapped as long as the products are undisturbed. Sawing, scraping or smashing the product may release fibers.

Tips for Safely Handling Asbestos

Some situations require the removal of asbestos-containing materials. But it may be safer to leave the materials undisturbed or encapsulate them with a sealant. Consult a certified asbestos abatement professional for the best advice.

Some jurisdictions allow homeowners to remove asbestos materials on their own. If you are considering DIY asbestos abatement, remember the following precautions:

  1. Seal off the work area with plastic sheets and turn off the air conditioning.
  2. Wear a respirator with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  3. Wear disposable coveralls and gloves during asbestos abatement.
  4. Use a pump sprayer to keep asbestos materials wet and suppress dust at all times.
  5. Clean the work area with wet wipes or a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  6. Dispose of asbestos waste in clearly labeled bags at a landfill that can accept asbestos.

Is Asbestos Banned?

Asbestos is not banned in the United States, but it is highly regulated. The asbestos industry has powerful lobbying organizations protecting its interests. The toxic mineral is still commonly used in Russia, China, India and Mexico.

Safe Alternative to Asbestos

Since the 1980s, manufacturers in the United States have largely phased out the use of asbestos, relying instead on several safer substitutes.

Polyurethane foam insulation

Polyurethane foam

Polyurethane foam is cheap and effective for insulation. Construction workers can easily apply spray polyurethane foam to insulate and seal.

Amorphous silica fabric mimics the characteristics of asbestos fibers

Amorphous silica fabric

Amorphous silica fabric is a high-quality cloth woven from nearly pure amorphous silica fibers. Like asbestos, the fibers do not rot or burn.

Cellulose fiber, an asbestos-cement substitute

Cellulose fiber

Cellulose fiber is typically made from cotton, wood pulp, linen or shredded paper that is chemically treated to enhance it properties.

Thermoset plastic flour, a filler for plastics and adhesives

Thermoset plastic flour

Thermoset plastic flour is made of a mixture of wood fibers and binders, such as egg or gelatin, which is hardened and then finely ground.

Asbestos Cover-Up

The history of asbestos extends back to ancient times, but in the U.S., the toxic mineral had its heyday in the middle decades of the 20th century.

From the beginning of the modern asbestos industry, doctors documented the lethal effects of asbestos exposure in scattered medical reports. As early as the 1930s, business executives also quietly researched the issue and found that asbestos exposure causes lung disease.

Asbestos companies made enormous profits by selling insulation to shipbuilders during World War II, and they expanded their business further during the postwar building boom. These companies even paid unscrupulous researchers, such as J.C. Wagner, who helped them deny any responsibility.

Phasing Out Asbestos

However, the publication of new information about asbestos and medical evidence linking the mineral to cancer could no longer be ignored. Labor unions began to fight back. American companies phased out most uses of asbestos in the 1980s, but it was too late for the workers who had been handling asbestos products for decades.

Timeline

Late 1800s
Asbestos mining became a major industry to supply fibers for industrial products.
1927
First known workers’ compensation claim for asbestos-related disease is filed.
1930s
Asbestos companies quietly researched health effects and kept results hidden.
1933
Johns Manville settles 11 asbestosis lawsuits.
1960s
Medical studies confirm asbestos causes mesothelioma.
1973
An asbestos insulator won the first major asbestos lawsuit.

Asbestos Lawsuits

Asbestos manufacturers are held liable for the diseases their products cause because they covered up evidence of the health effects of asbestos and continued exposing workers and consumers.

Former employees are filing lawsuits against asbestos companies, and so are the workers who used asbestos products on the job. Family members who develop mesothelioma through secondhand exposure are also eligible to file a legal claim.

People with mesothelioma can be compensated through multiple legal options, including trust funds established by asbestos companies that went bankrupt.

Hundreds of thousands of patients and families have sought compensation for illnesses caused by the negligence of the asbestos industry. These claims hold the asbestos industry liable for the harm they’ve caused and provide much-needed compensation to cover medical bills and lost wages.

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Common Questions About Asbestos

What do I need to know about asbestos and diseases such as mesothelioma?
  • Asbestos refers to a group of fibrous minerals used to strengthen and fireproof materials.
  • When inhaled over long periods of time, asbestos fibers become trapped in the body and cause diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
  • More than 50 other countries have banned the use of asbestos, but its use remains legal in the U.S. after a complicated history of legislation and regulation.
  • Hiring an asbestos abatement company to remove asbestos from residential and commercial buildings is the safest decision to keep yourself and others safe.
  • Compensation is available for those who have been exposed to asbestos. Mesothelioma lawyers specialize in asbestos litigation and settlements, averaging $1 million to $2.4 million in compensation for lawsuits.
Should I see a doctor if I have been exposed to asbestos?

You should see a doctor if you develop respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms that progress and don’t go away on their own. Tell your doctor about your history of asbestos exposure and ask them to screen you for related diseases. If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is extremely important to get a second opinion from a mesothelioma doctor.

Can I get compensation if I have been exposed to asbestos?

You are eligible for compensation if you were exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.

Quick Fact

Companies that exposed people to asbestos were forced to create trust funds before filing for bankruptcy. More than $32 billion has been set aside for people with mesothelioma and their families.

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