Key Facts About Asbestos
Asbestos sample showing fibers
Sample of chrysotile asbestos showing fibers

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral with tough fibers that can handle heat, electricity and corrosion. Companies used it in building materials, insulation, fireproofing materials, brakes and more because of these properties.

Building materials contain asbestos because it’s an effective insulator. Asbestos in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials makes them stronger.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

The six main types of asbestos fall into two categories: amphibole and serpentine. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency all classify each type of asbestos as a cancer-causing substance. 

Amphibole Asbestos

Amphibole asbestos fibers are straight and jagged. They appear needle-like.

  • Actinolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite
  • Tremolite

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 diseases.

Serpentine Asbestos

Serpentine asbestos fibers are curly. Chrysotile, also known as “white asbestos,” is the only form of this type of asbestos.

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Scientific studies link asbestos exposure to several 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 include:
  • Asbestosis
  • COPD
  • Diffuse pleural thickening
  • Pleural effusions
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleuritis

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 workplace exposure to the toxic mineral. While the U.S. is no longer mining asbestos, the risk of asbestos exposure is still particularly high for blue-collar workers. 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 health risks for those who live near production facilities that work with asbestos and for those who lived near mines while they were active.

Asbestos-Related Occupations

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.

Asbestos Manufacturing High-Risk Occupations
Historically High Risk Still High Risk
Mining Automative 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 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 City.

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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Asbestos Products

Products found in renovation or demolition work cause the most exposure. Old buildings that contain legacy asbestos products pose the largest risk.

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

Vinyl tiles containing asbestos
Kentile vinyl asbestos floor tiles

Discontinued Asbestos Building Materials

  • 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.

Brake lining containing asbestos made by Johns-Manville
Johns-Manville asbestos brake lining set
Leading Asbestos Companies
  • Johns Manville
  • W.R. Grace & Co.
  • Pittsburgh Corning
  • Armstrong World Industries

These companies often continued to manufacture and distribute asbestos-containing materials after they knew the risks they presented to workers and consumers. 

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 products fall into two risk categories:

  • Pipe insultation containing 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.
  • Asbestos tiles being removed
    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.

Tips for Safely Handling Asbestos

Some jurisdictions allow homeowners to remove asbestos 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 or furnace.
  • Wear a respirator with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Wear disposable coveralls and gloves during asbestos work.
  • Use a pump sprayer at all times to keep asbestos materials wet and suppress dust.
  • 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.

In many situations that require the removal of asbestos-containing materials, 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.

Asbestos Regulation

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?

Asbestos is not banned in the United States. However, it 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. 

Safe Alternatives to Asbestos

U.S. manufacturers have phased out the use of asbestos. They now rely on several safer substitutes.

  • Polyurethane foam insulation
    Polyurethane foam
    Polyurethane foam is cheap and effective for insulation. Construction workers can 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. It contains almost pure amorphous silica fibers. Like asbestos, the fibers do not rot or burn.
  • Cellulose fiber, an asbestos-cement substitute
    Cellulose fiber
    Cellulose fiber contains cotton, wood pulp, linen or shredded paper. A chemical treatment enhances its properties.
  • Thermoset plastic flour, a filler for plastics and adhesives
    Thermoset plastic flour
    Thermoset plastic flour is a mixture of wood fibers and binders. It can contain hardened egg or gelatin and is then ground down.

These materials provide cost-efficient solutions to manufacturers and distributors, replacing asbestos-containing products such as insulation, cloth and paper. 

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.

Survivor Story
Bob Niemiec Mesothelioma Survivor

A Navy Veteran’s Fight Against Mesothelioma

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 Cover-Up

Since the asbestos industry began, doctors have documented the health hazards of asbestos exposure. As early as the 1930s, businesses hid that asbestos exposure causes lung disease.

In the U.S., the toxic mineral had its heyday in the middle decades of the 20th century. Asbestos companies profited by selling insulation materials to shipbuilders during World War II. They expanded their businesses further during the postwar building boom. These companies paid unscrupulous researchers, such as J.C. Wagner, to deny responsibility.

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.

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

Asbestos 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.

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.

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 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 way 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 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 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.

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.