Asbestos exists in six naturally occurring types. In ancient Greek, it means "inextinguishable." Manufacturers and the U.S. military also marveled at its fire-resistant powers, but exposure to asbestos leads to many terminal diseases including mesothelioma.

Asbestos use dates to the ancient Greeks who were fascinated by the mineral’s resistance to fire.

Centuries later, manufacturers also were impressed by its powers and incorporated the mineral to strengthen and fireproof various products. The U.S. military mandated its use in every branch of service because of its effectiveness.

Seemingly, asbestos was a perfect ingredient to make things better. Unfortunately, it was highly toxic, too. Asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer. Although it’s banned in more than 50 countries, not the U.S., other nations have significantly restricted its usage.

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 at how much whiter they emerged from the flames. Asbestos also was found in Stone Age pottery.

Diagram showing where asbestos can be found in the home

Detailed Diagram of Where Asbestos Can Be Found in the Home

Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, used it to impress his guests. Marco Polo found it in China. While these rulers flaunted it, slaves who wove the asbestos-containing 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 that manufactured asbestos-containing products for all walks of life became major employers in cities.

The railroad and shipbuilding industries started using it extensively to insulate steam engines and fireproof all sea vessels. The automobile industry wasn’t far behind, incorporating it in brakes, clutches and all friction products.

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Types of Asbestos

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies six types of asbestos minerals: Chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. Although all commercial forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, there are differences in their chemical compositions.


Crocidolite asbestos

Manufacturers used crocidolite, which is also known as blue asbestos, less than other types of asbestos because it doesn’t resist heat as well as other forms of the mineral. Its fibers are extremely thin. Crocidolite is the most harmful type of asbestos.


Chrysotile asbestos

Chrysotile comprises approximately 90 percent of the asbestos used commercially in the world. Its fibers are curly and longer than other asbestos types. Asbestos supporters argue that chrysotile isn’t as toxic as other asbestos types, yet scientific studies confirm it causes the same diseases and is extremely hazardous to human health.


Tremolite asbestos

Tremolite, commonly found alongside deposits of talc, vermiculite and chrysotile, is responsible for contaminating the infamous vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. The EPA reports that vermiculite, which is a mineral used for a type of insulation, was installed in more than 35 million U.S. homes under the brand name Zonolite.


Actinolite asbestos

This mineral has straight-shaped fibers and is normally dark in color. Actinolite was commonly combined with vermiculite to make insulation. It was also used in construction materials such as drywall and paint.


Anthophyllite asbestos

Manufacturers didn’t use anthophyllite as much as the other forms of asbestos, and it isn’t as abundant as other types of the mineral. While it was mined mostly in Finland, there were several mines in North Carolina and Georgia.


Amosite asbestos

Considered more toxic than chrysotile, amosite asbestos is primarily found in South Africa. It often appears brown, and its fibers are shorter and straighter than chrysotile fibers. Construction projects preferred amosite over other types.

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Asbestos and the US Military

Officer in the Marines

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.

Lauded for its fireproofing and insulating capabilities, asbestos was ubiquitous in military life. Ships, tanks, aircraft and trucks contained asbestos. It was used for construction, maintenance and repair of military equipment. Bases were covered with asbestos-containing materials.

Find more about asbestos exposure in the U.S. Military

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.

The U.S. Navy utilized more than 300 asbestos-containing materials. It was almost impossible to avoid exposure. From the engine and boiler rooms, to the sleeping quarters and mess halls, asbestos was everywhere in the Navy — above and below decks.

Mining of Asbestos

Mining of Asbestos

Fueled by the beginning of the industrial revolution, the first asbestos mine in the U.S. opened in Sall Mountain mine in White County, Georgia, in the late 1800s. The last mine closed in California in 2002. It took more than 100 years to fully understand the deadly power of asbestos.

Although other parts of the world still mine asbestos, its use has declined in the U.S. 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 use of asbestos has dropped dramatically in the United States – only 340 tons were consumed in 2016 – global production has remained steady at 2 million tons annually. The most ever mined were 4.77 million tons in 1977.

W.R. Grace Company operated the most notorious mine in the U.S. It was located in Libby, Montana, where thousands of illnesses and deaths were attributed to asbestos exposure. The vermiculite mine turned into an environmental disaster and was later designated a Superfund site in 2002. The EPA declared it a public health emergency in 2009.

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Exposure to Asbestos

Factory building

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that more than 75 different types of jobs in the U.S. expose workers to asbestos. About 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases involve military veterans, which is an indication of the group most injured by asbestos.

Occupations in the construction industry were hit the hardest, according to NIOSH. Plumbers, pipefitters, steam fitters and electricians were the most vulnerable to asbestos-related diseases. The occurrence of these diseases in shipbuilding and the electrical power industries is also abnormally high. More than 80 percent of those stricken with asbestos-related conditions are men.

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The World Health Organization reports that most asbestos-related illnesses, about 107,000 cases annually, are traced to occupational exposure; however, some people not working directly with the mineral are at risk, too.

Many exposures are secondhand, which means families of workers who inadvertently carried the deadly fibers home with them — on their clothes and hair — expose others to the mineral.

Homes and apartments built before 1980 often are filled with asbestos. Normal wear and tear and age will 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 Alternatives

Because of its dangers, finding a suitable substitute became a paramount concern 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

Polyurethane foam provides effective insulation and is often used as an alternative to asbestos. It is found in spray form, and it’s multifunctional. Builders, contractors and manufacturers are the most common users of polyurethane foam because of its 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, attract mildew or 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 shipbuilding, automotive services, and the electrical, aerospace and metallurgy industries.

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, which are later 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 completely, but it 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.

Flour fillers

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 produced into resins, veneers, laminated lumber, and they can be used in manufacturing rubber and paint products. They are also included in some cosmetics. This type of flour filler is also incorporated in adhesives and plywood manufacturing.

Rice hull flour is used to extend applications that require high-silica content, and corn cob flour is a lightweight extender. Other flour fillers include those made from pecans, rice, wheat, rice hulls and rice hull ash.

Cellulose fiber

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 sometimes made to be water soluble. It is a major component in cement.

These cements appear in roofing and plumbing products. The cements seal and insulate high- and low-pressure pipes, water heaters, storage tank, and gutters, among other products.

It’s a common ingredient in drywall. Some Chinese drywall manufacturers that sell products to U.S. companies for distribution have switched from asbestos-based cement to fiber-based cement to make wall and ceiling coverings.

One form of cellulose fiber is autoclaved cellulose fiber-reinforced cement. Pulp and waste paper form the fiber and later mixed with ground silica sand, fly ash or both. After an autoclaving heating process, the mixture becomes more heat resistant.

Despite the significant drop in use, and all the restrictions regarding it now, asbestos remains a serious problem today. Commercial and residential structures built before 1980 still are filled with asbestos products that become more dangerous as they age.

Any remodeling, renovating or demolition of those structures, for example, releases toxic asbestos fibers into the air, where they can be inhaled unknowingly. An estimated 10,000 people in the U.S. still are diagnosed annually with an asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos continues to haunt us all.

Asbestos Litigation

Legal books and gavel

Clarence Borel didn’t live to see it happen, but in 1973, he became the first plaintiff to hold an asbestos manufacturer liable for injuries caused by its product. That case opened the flood gates.

Attorney Ward Stephenson filed the lawsuit in the Eastern District of Texas against 11 asbestos manufacturers on Borel’s behalf and asked 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 with asbestosis and later mesothelioma.

Buoyed by the success of Borel’s case, workers across the country began seeking compensation from manufacturers that knowingly exposed their employees to the dangers of asbestos.

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Rise of Asbestos Lawsuits

Between 1982 and 2002, the number of claimants in asbestos lawsuits increased from 1,000 to 730,000. The number of companies sued rose from 300 to 8,400. Analysts predict the number of asbestos filings will ultimately top 1 million. The number of asbestos defendants in 2015 alone had grown to approximately 9,000 companies.

More than 100 companies have filed for bankruptcy because of mounting asbestos claims. 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.

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Tim Povtak

Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His specialty is interviewing top mesothelioma specialists and researchers, reporting the latest news at mesothelioma cancer centers and talking with survivors and caregivers.

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