Asbestos is a mineral that has been used in thousands of products. Exposure to asbestos-containing materials can cause mesothelioma and other diseases.
Asbestos is a natural mineral used in many types of products because of its properties.
Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma.
Although it is a known carcinogen, asbestos is not fully banned in the United States.
Exposure occurs from job sites, the military, asbestos products or secondhand.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a natural mineral that has been mined and used for centuries. When added to products, the mineral increases durability and heat and chemical resistance.
Long considered a “miracle” mineral, asbestos has been used in thousands of products. Asbestos is often found in insulation and other construction materials, car brakes, hairdryers and many other types of products.
At the height of its use, asbestos could be found in more than 3,000 consumer products.
Over time, researchers realized the dangers associated with asbestos. When asbestos materials are disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibers can release into the air and cause dangerous exposure.
When people inhale or ingest the microscopic fibers, it can lead to serious health problems, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Types of Asbestos
There are six types of asbestos and all forms are carcinogenic. However, researchers have noted some types are more dangerous than others. Certain types of asbestos result in a higher risk for mesothelioma or another similar diagnosis.
All asbestos is categorized as serpentine or amphibole asbestos.
All types of asbestos are fibrous, but the difference between these categories is the appearance of the microscopic fibers. The only serpentine type of asbestos is chrysotile. This form is curly and is easily woven.
The Six Types of Asbestos
Chrysotile asbestos is the most common form of the mineral. It is also known as “white asbestos.” Chrysotile accounts for more than 90% of the asbestos used in the United States. It was used in many commercial applications, including flooring, walls, ceilings and roofing materials. This form of asbestos was also commonly used in the U.S. Navy.
Amosite or “brown asbestos” is identified by its brown color. Amosite was predominantly used in construction, including cement sheets, pipe insulation and ceiling tiles. Amosite is no longer mined for commercial use.
Tremolite is not mined commercially. Instead, it 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 asbestos.
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. 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 can be noted by its grey-brown color. It has long, flexible fibers. Anthophyllite is 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.
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.
Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos has been linked to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases since at least the 1920s. The connection to disease didn’t slow down use of the mineral by asbestos companies.
From the 1930s through the late 1970s, asbestos use skyrocketed throughout the United States and the world, putting millions of people at risk of exposure.
During this time, the connection between asbestos exposure and cancer risk became clearer. Reports of mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases increased dramatically.
Any amount of asbestos exposure, even limited, is considered dangerous. All asbestos exposure can later lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis.
How Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma
When inhaled or ingested, asbestos fibers embed into the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. The fibers can cause inflammation and scarring of the organ linings. After 10 – 50 years, this damage can develop into mesothelioma tumors or other related conditions.
The type of mesothelioma depends on where in the body the asbestos fibers embed. The most common form of mesothelioma develops in the lungs.
In addition to mesothelioma, asbestos exposure can cause various other conditions.
- Asbestosis: A chronic lung disease resulting from scarring of lung tissue after prolonged asbestos exposure.
- Lung cancer: Studies suggest about 3 – 4% of lung cancer cases are asbestos-related, though smoking is the leading cause.
- Pleural effusion: An unnatural increase in fluid around the lungs. This is often a precursor to other asbestos-related diseases.
- Pleural plaques: Thickened areas on the pleura surface. On their own, plaques aren’t cancerous. However, the condition can be a symptom of other asbestos diseases.
- Pleural thickening: Asbestos causes scarring and thickening of the pleura (lung lining). While not deadly on its own, it may be a symptom of malignant mesothelioma.
- Other cancers: Ovarian, esophageal, laryngeal and several other cancers have all shown a potential link to asbestos exposure in some cases.
Some of these asbestos diseases, such as pleural thickening and pleural plaques, are not considered deadly. These can be managed like a chronic disease.
Mesothelioma, on the other hand, has an average prognosis of 12 – 21 months.
Preventing asbestos exposure is vital. The mineral is not yet fully banned in the U.S. and past uses still linger throughout the world, putting people at risk.
Common Places to Find Asbestos
The use of asbestos in the United States is decreasing. However, the mineral can still be found in thousands of older homes, buildings and schools built before 1980.
Knowing where asbestos can potentially be found is essential in preventing exposure. There is no way to identify asbestos with the naked eye, but there are some products and areas of the home more likely to contain the mineral.
Common Asbestos Products
- Building materials: Insulation, vinyl floor tiles, plaster, cement, caulk, adhesives, roofing, shingles, siding
- Automotive Parts: Brake pads, brake linings, clutch linings, transmission plates
- Electrical Materials: Boilers, furnaces, wires and cables, generators, heating ducts, valves, pumps, gaskets, wiring insulation
- Protective and Fireproofing Materials: Fire blankets, fire doors, gloves, clothing, weather coating
- Military Uses: Boiler or engine rooms, military vehicles, Navy ships, barracks
- Consumer Products: Talcum powder (baby powder), hairdryers, crockpots, iron rests, ironing board covers, stove mats, fume hoods, fertilizer, potting soil
These are just a sample of the numerous products that have been made with asbestos. Today, up to 1% asbestos is still allowed in certain products with historic use. This continues to put the public at risk of exposure.
How to Identify Asbestos
Although you can’t see asbestos with the naked eye, there are ways to identify potentially asbestos-containing products.
For instance, asbestos is very common in older homes. If a home was built before 1980, it may contain asbestos. Those who own older homes should call an asbestos professional who can take a sample to test for asbestos.
Some asbestos professionals have noted several basic visual inspections and considerations that may help identify asbestos products and put homeowners’ minds at ease.
- Check surface patterns on materials like roofing and shingles: Asbestos is known to have a dimpling effect or create shallow craters.
- Examine interior and exterior joints: On the outside of buildings and homes, asbestos sheets were often joined by aluminum runners, with plastic or wooden runners for the interior. Asbestos could also be found in adhesives, such as window putty, drywall tape and joint cement.
- Consider the location in the home: Bathrooms are often cited as having asbestos in the floor tiles. Basements commonly had the mineral around hot water pipes, furnaces and boilers. Asbestos cement and ductwork containing the mineral can also be found in basements. Asbestos insulation is most common in the attic.
Anyone who suspects asbestos in the home should contact a certified asbestos professional. They can perform an inspection to test for asbestos and determine if remediation is required.
How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?
There are several common asbestos exposure scenarios, such as workplace exposure, secondary exposure and environmental exposure.
Occupational exposure is the most common, with reports citing asbestos as the number one cause of occupational cancer. Construction workers, shipyard workers and veterans are among the most vulnerable.
Family members and loved ones are also at risk of secondhand exposure. Asbestos fibers may be brought home on:
- Workers’ hair
For decades, the primary cause of mesothelioma in women and younger adults was secondhand exposure.
The public may also face the health risks of exposure from natural asbestos in the environment. Recent studies have shown environmental exposure is on the rise. If the asbestos becomes disturbed in some way, such as during a natural disaster, it can create asbestos dust that community members may inhale or ingest.
How Asbestos Exposure Occurs
There are strict laws and regulations on the federal, state and local levels on how asbestos can be removed and disposed of.
Tips for Finding an Asbestos Abatement Team
- Choose different companies for the inspection and removal of asbestos to avoid conflict of interest.
- Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints about unsafe removal.
- Ask for a detailed document of the plan for the project, as well as state and federal regulations they must follow.
If you suspect asbestos in your home or a building you plan to renovate, it’s important to contact an asbestos professional. An accredited abatement specialist can inspect the structure for asbestos and make recommendations on next steps, such as removal.
Do not try to handle asbestos on your own, as this could lead to exposure and serious health hazards.
Asbestos is not yet fully banned in the United States. However, there are federal and state laws in place to restrict usage and help protect people from the health effects of exposure.
The details and enforcement of these laws is the responsibility of the:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
Advocates have been fighting for an asbestos ban in the United States for years.
Asbestos is still legal to produce, import and export in about 70% of the world.