15 Min Read
Last Updated: 05/23/2024
Fact Checked

Written by Michelle Whitmer | Scientifically Reviewed By Arti Shukla, Ph.D. | Edited By Walter Pacheco

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral that occurs in rock and soil. It is made up of long, thin and fibrous crystals. Asbestos fibers are so small that a microscope is required to see them.

Inhaling or ingesting asbestos causes fibers to become trapped in the body. Over decades, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and cancer.

Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos also causes a progressive lung disease called asbestosis.

The mineral mainly comes from Russia, Kazakhstan and China. The toxic mineral was once mined throughout North America. Most commercial asbestos deposits contain 5% to 6% asbestos. Some deposits, such as the Coalinga deposit in California, contain 50% or more asbestos.

Key Facts About Asbestos
  • Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals used to strengthen and fireproof materials.
  • Inhaled asbestos fibers become trapped in the body. The fibers cause diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
  • More than 50 other countries have banned the use of asbestos. Its use remains legal in the U.S. after a complicated history of legislation and regulation.
  • The safest way to remove asbestos is to hire a professional abatement company.

Types of Asbestos

There are six main types of asbestos, according to The Congressional Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986. Many more types of asbestos exist, and they are commonly called asbestiform minerals.

Six Main Types of Asbestos

Raw crocidolite asbestos

Known as blue asbestos, it was commonly used to insulate steam engines. It was also used in some spray-on coatings, pipe insulation, plastics and cement products.

Raw tremolite asbestos
Tremolite & Actinolite

They are not used commercially but can be found as contaminants in chrysotile asbestos, vermiculite and talc. These two chemically similar minerals can be brown, white, green, gray or transparent.

Raw amosite asbestos

Known as brown asbestos, it was used most frequently in cement sheets and pipe insulation. It can also be found in insulating board, ceiling tiles and thermal insulation products.

Raw anthophyllite asbestos

It was used in limited quantities for insulation products and construction materials. It also occurs as a contaminant in chrysotile asbestos, vermiculite and talc. It may have a grey, dull green or white color.

Raw chrysotile asbestos

Known as white asbestos, it is the most commonly used form of asbestos. It can be found today in the roofs, ceilings, walls and floors. Manufacturers also used chrysotile asbestos in automobile brake linings, gaskets and boiler seals, and insulation for pipes, ducts and appliances.

Asbestos comes in many mineral forms. All asbestos types cause mesothelioma.

The six main types of asbestos fall into two categories: amphibole and serpentine. Only chrysotile falls into the serpentine category. The rest are amphiboles.

Serpentine asbestos fibers are long and curly, and chrysotile is often white in color. Amphibole asbestos fibers are brittle, needle-like and range in color from green to blue to brown.

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Types of Asbestos
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How Was Asbestos Used?

Companies used asbestos in building materials, insulation, fireproofing materials, brakes and more. They used asbestos because the mineral’s tough fibers could handle heat, electricity and corrosion.

Building materials contained asbestos because it was an effective insulator. Asbestos in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials made them heat-resistant and stronger.

Common asbestos uses
Asbestos has been found in thousands of consumer, industrial and commercial products.

These past uses have led to asbestos exposure in occupational settings and in homes throughout the U.S. The highest asbestos exposure risk is through workplace exposure. While the U.S. is no longer mining asbestos or using it in products, the risk of asbestos exposure is still particularly high for blue-collar workers. Older schools, homes built before the ‘80s and military bases also pose a risk of exposure.

People who live with workers who handled asbestos products may risk secondhand exposure. There are also environmental health risks for those who live near production facilities that worked with asbestos and for those who lived near once active mines.

Occupations With High Asbestos Use

Asbestos use was widespread in various fields, including manufacturing, construction, power generation and industrial sectors. Workers in diverse fields encountered asbestos, and they unknowingly brought fibers home that resulted in secondhand exposure among family members.

The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry detailed exposure between 1940 and 1979. Its records showed about 27 million workers were exposed to aerosolized asbestos products. Now, about 1.3 million construction and industry workers remain at risk. Regulations have reduced the risk of exposure in the workplace. A degree of risk remains for many occupations. Certain jobs, including those in the chloralkali industry, still present a serious risk of exposure to asbestos today.

Historically High Risk Still High Risk
Mining Automotive Repair
Construction Chloralkali Production
Manufacturing Building Materials and Equipment Maintenance
Shipbuilding Renovation and Demolition
Electricity Generation Firefighting
Heavy Industry Sheet Gasket Use
Military Service Oilfield Brake Block Repair

The military used asbestos in the U.S. from the 1930s to the 1970s. Asbestos was especially common on Navy ships. Its use caused veterans to develop the bulk of asbestos-related diseases. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is collecting data on recent exposure. In October 2023, the agency finalized a rule requiring manufacturers that used asbestos between 2019 and 2022 to provide data to the agency. Manufacturers are required to report quantities of asbestos manufactured or processed, types of use and employee data by May 24, 2024.

Living near an asbestos-contaminated mine or processing facility risks environmental exposure. One of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history is the Superfund site in and around Libby, Montana. Vermiculite mining contained traces of asbestos that contaminated the surrounding area for miles. This led to the deaths of hundreds of Libby residents.

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At-Risk Occupations
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Survivor Story

Bob Niemiec, a Navy veteran and mesothelioma survivor, received a terminal diagnosis in 2019 due to asbestos exposure during his military service. Opting for immunotherapy in January 2021, he now enjoys a relatively normal life, finding inspiration in his family, particularly his grandchildren.

Read Bob’s Story

Asbestos-Containing Products

U.S. companies produced thousands of products containing asbestos until the 1980s. Products found in renovation or demolition work cause the most exposure today. Old buildings that contain legacy asbestos products pose the largest risk.

Long-term exposure to asbestos products occurs in occupational settings such as factories, plants, construction sites and schools. Short-term exposure often happens at home during do-it-yourself renovation projects or auto brake replacement. 


The number of people in the U.S. exposed to asbestos The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com has helped since 2017.

Discontinued Asbestos Building Materials

Consumer asbestos products are no longer made but once included toasters, ovens, ironing pads and hair dryers. People have also been exposed to asbestos-contaminated talc in cosmetics and toys.

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

The EPA now reserves the right to review the potential risks of these materials before they are allowed on the market.

Asbestos Suppliers and Manufacturers

Hundreds of manufacturers used asbestos insulation in steam engines, piping and locomotives. Thousands of other uses emerged later. Asbestos became common in boilers, gaskets, cement, roofing shingles and automotive brake pads.

Johns Manville, W.R. Grace & Co., Pittsburgh Coming and Armstrong Industries are among the leading asbestos companies. These companies often continued to manufacture and distribute asbestos-containing materials after they knew the risks they presented to workers and consumers.

2019 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule states manufacturers must seek government approval before selling discontinued uses of asbestos. Examples of discontinued products include vinyl floor tiles, cement, roofing felt, adhesives, sealants and coatings. The EPA now reserves the right to review the potential risks of these materials before they are allowed on the market.

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Asbestos Manufacturers

How to Identify Asbestos Products

The only way to identify asbestos is through lab testing or professional inspection. Microscopic asbestos fibers have no smell or taste. Homeowners should hire a licensed asbestos professional to collect samples for testing.

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Asbestos-Contaminated Products

Risk Categories of Asbestos Products

Deteriorated pipe insulation containing friable asbestos
Friable Asbestos Materials

Friable asbestos materials are easy to break or crumble by hand. Examples include asbestos insulation that was used around steam pipes and talcum powder contaminated with asbestos. These materials can release toxic dust into the air upon breakage.

Broken slab of concrete containing nonfriable asbestos
Nonfriable Asbestos Materials

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

Asbestos fibers in products and building materials are not easily identified by sight. While sometimes it is possible to see asbestos fibers in certain materials, the presence or lack of visible fibers cannot confirm if asbestos is in a product.

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Scientific studies link asbestos exposure to several asbestos-related diseases, including cancers. Mesothelioma is a type of malignant cancer directly related to asbestos exposure. Asbestos also causes asbestos-related lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.

Other Asbestos-Related Diseases
  • Asbestosis
  • COPD
  • Diffuse pleural thickening
  • Pleural effusions
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleuritis

Several other countries have created mesothelioma registries to gather important data. This information helps researchers determine incidence and risk factors. No national mesothelioma registry exists in the U.S., but researchers are hoping to develop one in the future.

Asbestos Laws & Regulations

Asbestos regulation includes standards and guidelines for using, handling and removing asbestos that safeguard public health. Local, state and federal laws all aim to reduce the risks of asbestos exposure and protect workers, consumers and the environment.

Procedures for dealing with asbestos cover many approaches, such as testing, workplace safety and disposal. Other laws focus on continuous monitoring and enforcement. Together, these asbestos regulations minimize hazards and ensure the safety of workers and communities.

Is Asbestos Banned?

As of March 2024, the Biden administration finalized a ban of chrysotile asbestos in the United States. The mineral continues to be imported to the U.S. for use in the chloralkali industry. The ban allows companies up to 12 years to phase out the material, but will continue to be used in manufacturing during that time. The ban doesn’t apply to other types of asbestos.

Asbestos is recognized as a health hazard and is highly regulated. The asbestos industry has powerful lobbying organizations protecting its profits. Russia, China, India and Mexico still use the toxic mineral.

Congress continues to deliberate on bills, such as the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2023, that would eliminate remaining loopholes allowing asbestos into the country. Since 2019, the EPA has been in control of reviews allowing certain asbestos-containing products into the United States.

Prevention is the only cure to asbestos-caused illnesses. By banning asbestos, we limit exposure. Asbestos causes 40,000 deaths each year.

U.S. manufacturers have phased out the use of asbestos. They now rely on several safer substitutes. Examples include polyurethane foam, amorphous silica fabric, cellulose fiber and thermoset plastic flour. These materials provide cost-efficient solutions to manufacturers and distributors, replacing asbestos-containing products such as insulation, cloth and paper.

Phasing Out Asbestos

The phase-out of asbestos began when significant medical evidence linked asbestos to cancer. Labor unions began to fight back. American companies phased out most uses of asbestos in the 1980s. By then, it was too late for the workers who had been already handling asbestos products for decades.

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

Most of the asbestos that remains in buildings today is legacy asbestos. If left undisturbed, asbestos does not pose a threat; however, unforeseen natural disasters, fires or other catastrophes could release these fibers.

How to Safely Handle & Remove Asbestos

It is not safe for nonprofessionals to remove asbestos-containing materials. Even though federal law allows single family homeowners to remove asbestos on their own, the EPA strongly advises against it. The agency recommends hiring licensed asbestos professionals to prevent exposure among family members in the home. 

Professionals undergo in-depth training and certification to learn how to prevent asbestos exposure. They wear a respirator with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, disposable coveralls, goggles and gloves during asbestos work.

They also properly seal off the work area with plastic sheets and build a decontamination area. After removal, they clean the work area with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. They also dispose of asbestos waste in specialized and clearly labeled bags at a landfill that can accept asbestos.

In certain situations, it may be safer for the professionals to leave the materials undisturbed or encapsulate them with a sealant. Consult a certified, local asbestos abatement professional for the best advice.

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Asbestos Abatement

Asbestos Resources and Support

Several federal and international government agencies provide additional information on regulations, safety and statistics.

These agencies frequently update their websites with new information on upcoming bills, initiatives and other asbestos-related news.

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Impact of Asbestos on Public Health and the Environment

While the impact of asbestos on public health is generally known, the detrimental effects of asbestos-containing materials on the environment should not be understated. The dangers of asbestos to public health and ecology include:

  • Air Pollution: Airborne fibers can lead to serious respiratory diseases, including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer, not only for workers but also for nearby residents and communities.
  • Environmental Contamination: Manufacturing, demolition and renovation activities can release asbestos fibers from construction materials into the air and water. These microscopic fibers can persist in the environment for extended periods, posing risks to wildlife and ecosystems.
  • Environmental Cleanup: Contamination requires costly and complex cleanup efforts. This remediation is essential to prevent further asbestos exposure.
  • Water Contamination: Asbestos can contaminate water sources through runoff from construction sites or aging asbestos-cement pipes. Ingesting asbestos-contaminated water can result in long-term health problems, including gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers.

Asbestos has left a lasting imprint on the environment and public health. Its widespread use, coupled with the persistence of its fibers, has led to a multifaceted impact that extends beyond individual health issues. 

Addressing these broader concerns requires a comprehensive approach, including rigorous regulations, responsible handling and disposal, and ongoing efforts to prevent asbestos-related harm to the environment and public health.

Asbestos Exposure Lawsuits

Hundreds of thousands of patients and families have filed asbestos lawsuits. These claims provide much-needed compensation for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases to cover medical bills and lost wages. Settlements average $1 million to $2 million in compensation for lawsuits.

Once you’re diagnosed with mesothelioma, you’re probably going to get different lawyers contacting you. Choose a lawyer who specializes in mesothelioma cases and is the best one for you. Filing a claim is a way for us to seek justice.

Loved ones who develop mesothelioma through secondhand exposure may file a legal claim. People with mesothelioma may also file a claim against an asbestos trust fund. Mesothelioma lawyers who specialize in asbestos litigation can help you file a claim. 

These claims hold the asbestos industry liable for the harm they’ve caused. They covered up evidence of asbestos’ health hazards. For years, they continued exposing workers and consumers.

Common Questions About Asbestos

Where does asbestos come from?

Asbestos is a mineral that naturally occurs in metamorphic rocks. Deposits of asbestos are found in mountainous regions throughout the U.S. and the world. Erosion and other natural forces can distribute asbestos into soil and water.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Asbestos is dangerous because it causes cancer and pulmonary diseases. Long-term exposure creates a risk of mesothelioma, lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancer. Some people develop asbestosis, which involves progressive scarring of lung tissue. These conditions usually develop decades after exposure first begins.

Is asbestos still used in homes?

American companies no longer manufacture asbestos-containing building materials. However, other countries add asbestos to building materials that may be imported into the U.S. Imported roofing materials, joint compounds and gaskets may still contain asbestos.

What are the first signs of asbestos poisoning?

Exposure to asbestos fibers has no initial signs or symptoms. The first signs of asbestos poisoning include the beginning symptoms of related diseases. Shortness of breath, dry cough and chest or abdominal pain are the first symptoms of asbestos-related diseases.

Should I see a doctor if I have been exposed to asbestos?

You should see a doctor if you start to develop any symptoms. Tell your doctor about your history of asbestos exposure. Ask them to screen you for related diseases. After a mesothelioma diagnosis, get a second opinion from a mesothelioma medical specialist.

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

You are eligible for compensation if you develop mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis from asbestos exposure.

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