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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.
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.
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 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 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 diseases.
Serpentine asbestos fibers are curly. Chrysotile, also known as “white asbestos,” is the only form of this type of asbestos.
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.
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.
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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.
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 Materials 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 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.
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.
Discontinued Asbestos Building Materials
The EPA now reserves the right to review the potential risks of these materials before they are allowed on the market.
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.
These companies often continued to manufacture and distribute asbestos-containing materials after they knew the risks they presented to workers and consumers.
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:
Some jurisdictions allow homeowners to remove asbestos on their own. Follow these precautions if you are considering DIY asbestos abatement:
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 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.
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.
U.S. manufacturers have phased out the use of asbestos. They now rely on several safer substitutes.
These materials provide cost-efficient solutions to manufacturers and distributors, replacing asbestos-containing products such as insulation, cloth and paper.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You are eligible for compensation if you develop mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis from asbestos exposure.
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.
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