Asbestos is a group of silicate minerals known to cause a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma.

Key Points

  • 1

    Asbestos is a natural mineral used in many types of products because of its properties.

  • 2

    Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma.

  • 3

    Although it is a known carcinogen, asbestos is not banned in about 70% of the world.

  • 4

    Exposure occurs from job sites, the military, asbestos products or secondhand.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a natural mineral that had been lauded as a “miracle” because of its special properties. Asbestos is extremely durable and can resist most chemical reactions as well as fire. As such, asbestos has been mined for centuries and it was increasingly used for a variety of applications around the world.

Later on, in its usage, researchers began to realize its dangers. Materials containing asbestos could easily become damaged and cause the invisible, durable fibers to become airborne. When people inhale or ingest these fibers, the asbestos can cause serious damage to the body over many years and develop into cancer or other diseases.

Six Types of Asbestos

Chrysotile: The most common form of asbestos. This mineral is classified as serpentine for its long, curly fibers that can be woven. Because of its formation, chrysotile accounts for over 90% of the asbestos used in the United States. It was used in many commercial applications, including flooring, walls, ceilings, and roof materials.Amosite: This mineral can be identified by its brown color, and is most commonly found in Africa. After chrysotile, this was the second most popularly used form of asbestos. Amosite was predominantly used in construction including cement sheets, pipe insulation, and ceiling tiles. Fortunately, amosite is no longer actively being mined for commercial use.
Tremolite: Tremolite is not mined commercially, and instead is predominantly found in vermiculite. Tremolite-contaminated vermiculite was ultimately the cause of deaths in Libby, Montana. It has also been found as a contaminant in talc powders and chrysotile.Crocidolite: Otherwise known as “blue” asbestos, crocidolite accounts for about 4% of the asbestos used in the United States. Crocidolite is harder and more brittle than other forms of asbestos because it forms in bundles of long, straight fibers. This type of asbestos can break very easily, making it the most lethal form of asbestos.
Anthophyllite: Anthophyllite can be noted by its grey-brown color. It has long, flexible fibers, primarily composed of magnesium and iron. It is not mined commercially and is one of the least common types of asbestos. It can be found as a contaminant in some flooring products.Actinolite: This type of asbestos can sometimes be green or colorless. Actinolite can often be found in metamorphic rocks. It’s extremely rare, so wasn’t used in consumer products like the other types. It can, however, sometimes be found as a contaminant in drywall and other products.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

While people found more and more uses for the durable mineral, its dangers also started to become more recognized. The health risks were officially realized by the early 1920s. In 1924, the first documented case of a young woman dying because of exposure to asbestos at her job in an asbestos textile factory was published in the British Medical Journal. Though researchers later labeled her condition as asbestosis, more studies were done around this “dust disease” and the harm asbestos could cause.

Despite this knowledge, asbestos use heightened from the 1930s – 1970s. Studies show that at its peak use in 1973, the United States consumed over 800,000 tons of asbestos through imports and its own manufacturing. It was used widely throughout many industries including construction, shipbuilding and throughout the military. At one point, asbestos could also be found in over 3,000 consumer products.

Throughout this time, more people came forward with asbestos-related diseases, and reports have shown that many manufacturers realized the health risks but still continued its use. By the 1960s, however, researchers conclusively proved that asbestos could cause the rare cancer mesothelioma. Mesothelioma can form in the lungs, abdomen, or heart and has an average life expectancy of 12 months. More companies were beginning to be held liable for exposure and the diseases these workers faced.

While some types of asbestos are more dangerous than others, they are all labeled carcinogenic today. No amount of exposure to any kind of asbestos is considered safe and can lead to mesothelioma or other diseases.

Other Asbestos-Related Diseases & Conditions

Asbestosis: A chronic lung disease resulting from scar tissue on the tissue lining the lungs after prolonged asbestos exposure. Asbestosis can often be a precursor to mesothelioma.

Lung Cancer: Though the leading cause of lung cancer is smoking, asbestos exposure can also be a factor in its development–especially when combined with smoking. Lung cancer is the result of abnormal cell growth in the lungs.

Pleural Effusion: An unnatural increased in fluid around the lungs, it can often be a precursor to other asbestos-related diseases. This condition can appear within 10 years of exposure.

Pleural Plaque: Thickened areas on the pleura’s surface, which can often be a symptom of other diseases like mesothelioma. On their own, plaques aren’t cancerous and don’t cause breathing problems.

Pneumothorax: Accumulation of air in the chest cavity, which can lead to the lung collapsing. This can happen on its own or as a result of another lung disease. Mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as this condition.

Asbestos Warts: Unlike other asbestos-related diseases, this is an external condition. These can form on the skin where asbestos fibers have been embedded.

Asbestos Legislation

Though asbestos is not yet banned in the United States, there are federal and state laws in place to restrict its usage and help protect people from exposure. The details and enforcement of these laws is the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

The EPA first passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, which allowed them to regulate the use of chemicals, including asbestos. In 1989, the act was amended to ban asbestos, but this was ultimately overturned a few years later. Instead of a total ban, the amendment allowed products that had historic use of asbestos the ability to continue using the mineral as long as it does not exceed 1% of the product.

While there are various other laws to protect the public and workers, like the Clean Air Act and OSHA regulations, advocates believe the restrictions on the toxin are not enough to protect the public. Millions of people are still unknowingly exposed to asbestos each year, and it’s estimated at least 20 million Americans will develop mesothelioma in their lifetime.

Fighting for a Ban

There have been many hurdles in the fight to ban asbestos, but more recently some progress has been made. In May 2016, one of the biggest hurdles was cleared when Congress passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The bill empowered the EPA to review and potentially ban substances they deemed toxic and a threat to public health. In December 2016, they announced their list of the first ten chemicals, which included asbestos.

There is still a long road and likely many years ahead before a full ban would be reached in the United States. But this bill at least brings us one step closer to a total ban on the toxin. Other countries are also making progress toward full bans on the toxin, with Canada expected to implement a full ban by 2018.

Asbestos Exposure

Since asbestos has been used so heavily in a variety of applications, millions of people are at risk of exposure. While the majority of exposures occur in the workplace, we also face the risk of secondhand exposure, asbestos products, exposure in the home or from the environment.

Occupational Exposure

Asbestos is the number one cause of occupational cancer in the United States, while some occupations face a higher risk than others, even those who work from a home office can be at risk of exposure.

At-Risk Occupations

  • Construction Worker
  • Shipyard Worker
  • Mining
  • Mechanic
  • Engineers
  • Plant Workers
  • Firefighters
  • Railroad Workers

Regulations under OSHA and the EPA can help protect workers against exposure and ensure employers take the necessary precautions to keep them safe.

Read about Asbestos Exposure at Work

Military Exposure

Asbestos was used heavily throughout the different branches of the military. It seemed like the ideal materials for all of their needs. Because of such heavy use, about one-third of mesothelioma diagnoses are veterans.

While veterans in any branch could have faced exposure to the toxin, navy veterans and shipyard workers were most at risk. Asbestos was used heavily throughout the construction of navy vessels. The tight confines of the ships would create more condensed airborne asbestos during any ship repairs or damage to the vessel.

Common Asbestos Exposure Risks

  • Military barracks
  • Navy ships and shipyards
  • Aircrafts and their parts
  • Vehicles and their parts
  • Buildings on military base

Secondhand Exposure

Secondhand exposure can occur when a worker unknowingly brings deadly asbestos fibers home with them on their clothing, in their hair, or on any equipment used on the job. Many times workers wouldn’t think of or even have the chance to change out of their asbestos-coated clothing before going home. For decades, the primary cause of mesothelioma in women and younger adults was secondhand exposure.

In traditional family roles, the men would work while the women would take care of the household. Doing laundry could become a deadly task as the women handled the asbestos-covered clothing and shook off the dust before starting the wash. Even a simple hug could disturb asbestos fibers trapped on clothing and lead to a deadly disease years later.

Examples of Secondhand Exposure:

Wendy Holmes’ father was a lifelong mechanic and constantly came home in asbestos-covered clothing. Years after her prolonged exposure, she was diagnosed with stage 4 mesothelioma.

Read Wendy’s story

Brenda Jones would hand-wash her husband’s overall after a long day of work at a factory that contained asbestos. Her prolonged exposure led to a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis in 2011.

Read Brenda’s story

Environmental Exposure

Asbestos can be found naturally in the environment, and people have been indirectly exposed to asbestos this way. If the asbestos becomes disturbed in some way, it can easily create an asbestos dust that the community could easily breathe in. Recent studies have shown environmental exposure is on the rise.

For example, a study from the Journal of Thoracic Oncology found that women and young adults in South Nevada had disproportionately high incidence rates of mesothelioma because of their environment. Researchers found the high levels of natural asbestos in combination with the typically dry climate, construction growth in the area, dust storms, and recreational off-roading contributes to high amounts of airborne, breathable asbestos.

States With Most Naturally Occurring Asbestos

  • California
  • Arizona
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Alaska
  • Vermont

If you have been exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease as a result, you may be eligible to file a claim. Each state has a different statute of limitations, ranging from 1 to 6 years, so it’s important to contact a mesothelioma lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your legal options.

Common Places to Find Asbestos

Being aware of where asbestos is likely present can help prevent dangerous exposures. Asbestos was heavily used in construction and other fields through the 1980s, so any buildings or homes built before then likely contain asbestos. Many schools were also built in this time period and still contain asbestos today.

Thousands of products were also created using asbestos fibers, ranging from construction materials to consumer products we may use every day. While these uses are more regulated today, certain products that had a historic use of asbestos can still contain up to 1% of the toxin.

Examples of Asbestos Products:

Construction ProductsTiles, Flooring, Insulation, Pipe Insulation, Plaster, Compounds, Asphalt, Cements, Adhesives, Caulking, Roofing, Shingles, Siding
Automotive PartsBrakes, Brake Pads, Brake Linings, Clutch lining, Transmission Plates
Electrical MaterialsWires and Cables, Boilers, Furnaces, Generators, Heating Ducts, Valves, Pumps, Wiring Insulation
Protective or Fireproofing MaterialsFire Blankets, Fire Doors, Gloves, Textiles, Weather Coating
Consumer ProductsBaby Powder, Crock Pots, Hair Dryers, Iron Rests, Ironing Board Covers, Stove Mats, Fume Hoods, Fertilizer, Potting Soil

5 Products that Still Contain Asbestos

Handling Asbestos

There are strict laws and regulations as to how asbestos can be removed and disposed of. If you believe asbestos is in your home or a building you own and have any construction or renovation projects coming up, it’s important to begin with contacting an asbestos professional who can assess the situation. Do not try to handle the situation on your own, as this could lead to exposure.

An asbestos inspection will determine if asbestos is present, its extent in the home, and will provide recommendations for any next steps if they’re needed. If encapsulation (covering of the asbestos materials) or abatement (removal of asbestos-containing materials) is required before construction can begin, make sure you find a licensed abatement specialist to handle the job.

Tips for Finding an Asbestos Abatement Professional:

  • Choose a different company than the asbestos inspector so there’s no conflict of interest.
  • Check the company’s performance with your local air quality board and Better Business Bureau to ensure they handle removal properly and have no safety violations.
  • Double check their documentation of federal or state-approved training for the team handling the project to ensure they know how to properly handle asbestos.
  • Before work begins, you must receive a detailed plan from the professional specifying their work plan, how the cleanup will be handled, and the federal and local regulations they must abide by for the work.

During the removal process, the abatement professionals should properly label the area as an asbestos hazard and keep the jobsite clean to eliminate the risk of contamination in the rest of the house or building. The equipment they use, clothing they wear, and all the materials should be appropriately labeled and contained, as well.

Once the work is finished and the site is thoroughly cleaned as per regulations, you should receive a written statement that the contract was met. The professionals are then responsible for properly disposing of the asbestos materials, which usually consists of taking the waste to a certified landfill that can handle such products.

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Sources [+]
  • 1 “Asbestos (Chrysotile, Amosite, Crocidolite, Tremolite, Actinolite and Anthophyllite).”
  • 2 World Health Organization. “Chrysotile Asbestos.” 2014.
  • 3 Hudson Institute of Mineralogy. “Amosite.”
  • 4 Hudson Institute of Mineralogy. “Crocidolite.”
  • 5 Hudson Institute of Mineralogy. “Anthophyllite.”
  • 6 Hudson Institute of Mineralogy. “Actinolite.”
  • 7 Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. “Vermiculite Insulation Containing Asbestos.” Feb. 2, 2016.
  • 8 American Cancer Society. “Talcum Powder and Cancer.” May 3, 2016.
  • 9 Environmental Protection Agency. “U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos.” Dec. 24, 2015.
  • 10 Environment, Health and Safety Online. “Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Regulations in the United States.”