Asbestos, a mineral known for its carcinogenic properties, comprises flexible fibers that possess resistance to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities made asbestos valuable for various product applications. However, these same qualities contribute to the risks associated with asbestos exposure.
Written by Michelle Whitmer Edited By Walter Pacheco Scientifically Reviewed By Arti Shukla, Ph.D.
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Whitmer, M. (2023, May 31). Asbestos. Asbestos.com. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from https://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/
Whitmer, Michelle. "Asbestos." Asbestos.com, 31 May 2023, https://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/.
Whitmer, Michelle. "Asbestos." Asbestos.com. Last modified May 31, 2023. https://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/.
- Exposure to asbestos happens in occupational settings and in homes throughout the U.S.
- Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma. This cancer forms in the lining of the lungs or abdomen.
- Other types of cancer caused by asbestos include lung, ovarian and laryngeal cancer. Exposure may cause scarring of the lungs or asbestosis.
- U.S. companies produced thousands of products containing asbestos until the 1980s.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral. It consists of flexible fibers resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities make the mineral useful in many products. They also contribute to asbestos exposure toxicity.
Construction materials contained asbestos because it’s an effective insulator. Asbestos in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials makes them stronger.
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.
Types of Asbestos
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 legally recognizes six types of asbestos. This law, H.R. 5073, was passed during the 99th Congress and requires warning labels on any friable (or easily crumbled) asbestos-containing materials still in routine maintenance areas of a school building.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA all classify each type of asbestos as a cancer-causing substance. The six main types of asbestos fall into two categories: Amphibole and serpentine.
Amphibole asbestos fibers are straight and jagged. They appear needle-like.
Data from research studies indicate amphibole asbestos can cause cancer with less amounts of exposure than with other types of asbestos. But all identified forms of asbestos can cause asbestos-related diseases.
Serpentine asbestos fibers are curly. Chrysotile, also known as “white asbestos,” is the only form of this type of asbestos.
Where Does Asbestos Come From?
Asbestos 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.
Scientific studies link asbestos exposure to several diseases, including cancers.
Mesothelioma is a type of malignant cancer directly associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos also causes asbestos-related lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.
- Diffuse pleural thickening
- Pleural effusions
- Pleural plaques
Asbestos causes both benign and malignant diseases. While some asbestos-related diseases are classified as benign, they may have serious impacts on quality of life and can still be life-threatening.
Asbestos Exposure Risks
The highest asbestos exposure risk is through occupational exposure to the toxic mineral. The risk of asbestos exposure is particularly high among blue-collar jobs. Schools, older homes and the military also pose a risk of exposure.
People who live with workers who handle asbestos products may risk secondhand exposure. There are also environmental risks for those who live near production facilities that work with asbestos and for those who lived near mines while they were active.
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. But certain jobs still present a serious risk of exposure to asbestos today.
|Historically High Risk||Still High Risk|
|Manufacturing||Building and Equipment Maintenance|
|Shipbuilding||Renovation and Demolition|
|Heavy Industry||Sheet Gasket Use|
|Military Service||Oilfield Brake Block Repair|
The U.S. military used asbestos 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.
Family members of veterans and other asbestos industry workers also risk secondhand exposure. This type of exposure occurs when workers bring home fibers on hair, skin or clothes.
Living near an asbestos-contaminated mine or processing facility risks environmental exposure. Asbestos industry work sites have existed across the United States. One notable landmark is Grand Central Terminal in New York.
One of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history is the Superfund site at 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.
Products found in renovation or demolition work cause the most exposure. Old buildings that contain legacy asbestos products pose the largest risk.
A 2019 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule states manufacturers must seek government approval before selling discontinued uses of asbestos.
- Vinyl asbestos tiles
- Asbestos cement
- Asbestos roofing felt
- Asbestos adhesives, sealants and coatings
- Asbestos reinforced plastics
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 materials and automotive brake pads.
- Johns Manville
- W.R. Grace & Co.
- Pittsburgh Corning
- Armstrong World Industries
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.
Asbestos materials fall into two risk categories:
Friable Asbestos MaterialsFriable asbestos materials are easy to break or crumble by hand. Examples include old asbestos pipe insulation and talcum powder contaminated with asbestos. These materials can release toxic dust into the air upon breakage.
Nonfriable Asbestos MaterialsNonfriable asbestos materials are more durable. Examples include asbestos cement slabs and vinyl asbestos tiles. These products keep asbestos fibers trapped as long as the products remain 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, local asbestos abatement professional for the best advice.
Some jurisdictions allow homeowners to remove asbestos materials on their own. Follow these precautions if you are considering DIY asbestos abatement:
- Seal off the work area with plastic sheets and turn off the air conditioning.
- Wear a respirator with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
- Wear disposable coveralls and gloves during Asbestos work.
- Use a pump sprayer to keep asbestos materials wet and suppress dust at all times.
- Clean the work area with wet wipes or a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
- 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 profits. Russia, China, India and Mexico still use the toxic mineral.
Safe Alternative to Asbestos
U.S. manufacturers have phased out the use of asbestos. They now rely on several safer substitutes.
Polyurethane foamPolyurethane foam is cheap and effective for insulation. Construction workers can apply spray polyurethane foam to insulate and seal.
Amorphous silica fabricAmorphous silica fabric is a high-quality cloth. It contains almost pure amorphous silica fibers. Like asbestos, the fibers do not rot or burn.
Cellulose fiberCellulose fiber contains cotton, wood pulp, linen or shredded paper. A chemical treatment enhances its properties.
Thermoset plastic flourThermoset plastic flour is a mixture of wood fibers and binders. It can contain hardened egg or gelatin and is then ground down.
The history of asbestos extends back to ancient times. In the U.S., the toxic mineral had its heyday in the middle decades of the 20th century.
Since the asbestos industry began, doctors documented the lethal effects of asbestos exposure. As early as the 1930s, businesses hid that asbestos exposure causes lung disease.
Asbestos companies profited by selling insulation to shipbuilders during World War II. They expanded their business further during the postwar building boom. These companies paid unscrupulous researchers, such as J.C. Wagner, to deny responsibility.
Phasing Out Asbestos
Phasing out 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.
Asbestos mining became a major industry to supply fibers for industrial products.
A worker filed the first known workers’ compensation claim for asbestos-related disease.
Asbestos companies researched health effects in secret and kept results hidden.
Johns Manville settled 11 asbestosis lawsuits.
Medical studies confirmed asbestos causes mesothelioma.
An asbestos insulator won the first major asbestos lawsuit.
Hundreds of thousands of patients and families have filed asbestos lawsuits. These claims provide much-needed compensation to cover medical bills and lost wages.
Family members who develop mesothelioma through secondhand exposure may file a legal claim. People with mesothelioma may also file a claim against an asbestos trust fund.
These claims hold the asbestos industry liable for the harm they’ve caused. They covered up evidence of asbestos’ health effects. For years, they continued exposing workers and consumers.
Common Questions About Mesothelioma Treatment
- What do I need to know about asbestos and diseases such as mesothelioma?
- 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 strategy to remove asbestos is to hire a professional abatement company.
- Compensation is available for those with a history of asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma lawyers specialize in asbestos litigation. Settlements average $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 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 doctor.
- 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.
- 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 began.