Asbestos

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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.

Learn more about the dangers of asbestos.
Learn more about the dangers of asbestos.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency. Asbestos fibers are soft and flexible yet resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities make the mineral useful, but they also make asbestos exposure highly toxic.

Vintage Johns Manville asbestos advertisement
Vintage Johns Manville asbestos advertisement.

Pure asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can be used in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger. But when someone inhales or ingests asbestos dust, the mineral fibers can become forever trapped in their body.

Over decades, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and eventually genetic damage to the body’s cells. 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.

Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and it is unsafe to sniff a substance suspected of being asbestos. To detect asbestos, a sample of questionable material must be sent to a lab for testing.

Asbestos Facts

  • Asbestos is a natural mineral used in many products because of its resistance to heat.
  • Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer.
  • Asbestos is not banned in the U.S.
  • Exposure happens on the job, in the military, at school, through products or secondhand exposure.
Learn More Facts & Statistics About Asbestos

Types of Asbestos

Asbestos is not a single mineral — rather, it refers to a group of silicate minerals that share the same fibrous nature. In layman’s terms, it is often called “white asbestos” (chrysotile), the rarer “blue asbestos” (crocidolite) and “brown asbestos” (amosite).

Legally, the U.S. government recognizes six types of asbestos that fall into two categories, as outlined in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) of 1986.

Types of Asbestos Recognized by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Amphibole asbestos

  • Crocidolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite

Serpentine asbestos

  • Chrysotile

Scientifically, other asbestiform minerals exist that may be just as dangerous as the six legally recognized types. In 2008, legislation was introduced in Congress that would have extended the definition of asbestos to include other amphibole minerals such as winchite and richterite.

In the decades since AHERA was passed, though, every further attempt to regulate asbestos in the U.S. has failed due to pressure from business interests.

Learn More About Types of Asbestos

Where Does Asbestos Come From?

Natural deposits of asbestos are found all around the world. The toxic mineral was once mined throughout North America. Now the main exporters are Russia, Kazakhstan and China.

Raw asbestos is made by crushing asbestos ore to separate out the other minerals in it, and then processing the asbestos until it has a soft, wooly consistency.

Pure asbestos can be made into paper, felt, cloth or rope. Asbestos fibers have also been mixed into cements, drywall compounds, plastics, paints, sealants, and adhesives.

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Asbestos-Related Diseases

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

The most common asbestos-related cancer is mesothelioma. But there are definite connections to asbestos lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.

Other asbestos-related diseases include:

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

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.

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

The vast majority of patients with asbestos-related diseases are men in their 60s or older. This is because asbestos-related diseases have a very long latency period, often taking decades to develop, and 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
  • Heavy Industry
  • Military Service
  • Mining
  • Shipbuilding
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Occupational asbestos exposure is the No. 1 cause of asbestos disease..
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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 asbestos industry workers also bear an elevated risk of developing an asbestos-related disease due to secondhand exposure. Workers often unknowingly brought asbestos dust home with them on contaminated clothing and tools.

Finally, 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 all across the United States, such as in the town of Ambler, Pennsylvania, and at landmarks such as Grand Central Station.

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

Learn More About Asbestos Superfund Sites

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.

Discontinued Asbestos Products

  • Vinyl asbestos tiles
  • Asbestos cement
  • Asbestos roofing felt
  • Asbestos reinforced plastics
  • Asbestos adhesives, sealants and coatings

According to a rule released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2019, manufacturers must seek government approval before they can start selling those discontinued uses of asbestos.

Dock warehouse with corrugated transite asbestos concrete panels
Waterfront fires, the dread of shippers, are localized when dock storage warehouses are built of Corrugated Transite.

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 like boilers, gaskets, cement, roofing materials and automotive brake pads.

Well-Known Asbestos Companies

  • Johns Manville
  • R. Grace and Co.
  • Pittsburgh Corning
  • Armstrong World Industries
Learn More Information About Asbestos

How to Identify Asbestos Products

Diagram showing where asbestos can be found in the home
Where Asbestos Can Be Found in the Home

Without a manufacturer’s label, the only way to detect asbestos in a material is to send a sample to a lab for testing. Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and asbestos exposure does not cause any immediate symptoms. It is easy to inhale asbestos dust without realizing it.

Many American buildings constructed before 1980 contain asbestos, and asbestos-containing materials come in many forms. Unless a product is clearly marked, you cannot determine whether it contains asbestos just by looking at it.

Asbestos materials fall into two risk categories:

  • 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.
  • Nonfriable asbestos materials are durable. Examples include asbestos cement slabs and vinyl asbestos tiles. These products keep asbestos fibers safely trapped as long as the products are undisturbed. But it is always dangerous to smash, saw, or scrape asbestos-contain materials.
Learn More About Asbestos Products

Tips for Safely Handling Asbestos

Sometimes it is vital to remove an asbestos-containing material, and sometimes it is safest to leave the material undisturbed or encapsulate it with sealant. It is always best to leave the evaluation and removal of asbestos to certified asbestos abatement professionals.

Some jurisdictions allow private 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.
Learn More About Asbestos Abatement

The US Asbestos Industry in the 20th Century

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.

Asbestos mining became a major industry in the late 1800s when the Industrial Revolution created high demand for boiler and pipe insulation. Industrialists then found a treasure trove of new uses for the cheap and abundant mineral by mixing it into a variety of construction materials.

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. In 1973, U.S. asbestos consumption peaked at 803,000 metric tons.

Phasing Out Asbestos

By that time, however, the medical evidence linking asbestos to cancer could no longer be ignored, and 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 already handling asbestos products for decades.

The great asbestos cover-up had laid the stage for thousands of entirely preventable American deaths. Meanwhile, asbestos industry companies — aided by infamous researchers such as J.C. Wagner — went on denying any responsibility.

Learn More About The Asbestos Cover-up

Is Asbestos Banned?

Asbestos is banned in most developed nations, including Japan and the countries of the European Union.

But the toxic mineral is still commonly used in countries such as Russia, China, India and Mexico. In the United States, asbestos is not banned, but it is highly regulated.

At the end of 2019, the EPA is expected to finish its latest risk assessment of asbestos and determine whether to fully ban asbestos products in the United States.

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.

Around the world, though, millions of people are still exposed to asbestos from mines, factories and construction sites. The asbestos industry has powerful lobbying organizations protecting its interests.

Alternatives 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 is cheap and effective for insulation. Construction workers can easily apply spray polyurethane foam to insulate and seal buildings, and manufacturers frequently use flexible polyurethane foam in products such as furniture, packaging and automotive parts.
  • Amorphous silica fabric is a high-quality cloth woven from nearly pure amorphous silica fibers. Like asbestos, the fibers do not rot or burn, and they are highly heat resistant. This fabric is used in the shipbuilding, automotive, electrical, aerospace and metallurgy industries.
  • 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. As a filler for moldable plastics and adhesives, it provides similar benefits as asbestos without putting workers at risk.
  • Cellulose fiber is typically made from cotton, wood pulp, linen or shredded paper that is chemically treated to enhance it properties. Cellulose fiber cement is one of the most common asbestos-cement substitutes for high-temperature insulation, roofing and siding.

Asbestos Lawsuits

Asbestos-related cancer is a global problem, but America does not have a government-run asbestos compensation system or universal health care like most other developed nations. Specialized lawyers stepped into this void to enable patients to get the compensation they need.

The first successful asbestos lawsuit was won in 1973. Since then, asbestos litigation has become the longest running mass tort in U.S. history. Hundreds of thousands of patients and families have sought compensation for illnesses caused by the negligence of the asbestos industry.

Because the government never fully banned asbestos, legal liability was the primary reason American companies stopped selling most types of asbestos products.

More Resources About Asbestos

The following organizations may provide additional information about asbestos:

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Writer

Daniel King joined Asbestos.com in 2017. He comes from a military family and attended high school on an Air Force base in Japan, so he feels a close connection to veterans, military families and the many hardships they face. As an investigative writer with interests in mesothelioma research and environmental issues, he seeks to educate others about the dangers of asbestos exposure to protect them from the deadly carcinogen. Daniel holds several certificates in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
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Last Modified October 7, 2019

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