Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral that has been utilized in thousands of products, but exposure to the toxin can cause mesothelioma and other diseases.

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 has been mined and used for centuries because of its durability, heat and chemical resistance. Long considered a “miracle” mineral, asbestos has been utilized in thousands of products, in everything from insulation and other construction materials to car brakes and hair dryers. At the height of its use, asbestos could be found in over 3,000 consumer products.

Over time, however, researchers realized that when asbestos materials are disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibers can be released into the air and cause dangerous exposure. When people accidentally inhale or ingest the microscopic fibers, the mineral can eventually lead to serious health problems, like mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

Asbestos has been linked to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases since at least the 1920s, though that didn’t slow down use of the mineral. 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. Throughout this same time period, the connection between asbestos exposure and cancer risk became more clear, as more reports of mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases flooded in.

Any amount of asbestos exposure, even limited, is considered dangerous and can later lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis. When inhaled or ingested, the microscopic asbestos fibers work their way into the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Over a period of 10 to upwards of 50 years, the fibers can cause inflammation and scarring, which can eventually develop into mesothelioma tumors or other related conditions.

Asbestos-Related Diseases
  • Asbestosis: A chronic lung disease resulting from scar tissue on the tissue lining the lungs 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, which is often a precursor to other asbestos-related diseases.
  • Pleural plaques: Thickened areas on the pleura’s surface, which can often be a symptom of other asbestos diseases. On their own, plaques aren’t cancerous.
  • Pleural thickening: Asbestos causes thick scarring and thickening of the pleura. While not deadly on its own, it may be a symptom of malignant mesothelioma.
  • Other cancers: Ovarian, kidney, esophageal and several other cancers have all shown a potential link to asbestos exposure in some cases.

While some of these asbestos diseases, like pleural thickening and pleural plaques, are not considered deadly and can be managed like a chronic disease, mesothelioma has an average prognosis of just 12 to 21 months. Preventing asbestos exposure is vital while the mineral is not yet banned and past uses still linger throughout the world.

Learn More About Mesothelioma

Common Places to Find Asbestos

While the uses of asbestos in America today are much more limited, the toxin can still be found in thousands of older homes, buildings and schools built before 1980. Knowing where asbestos can potentially be found is important in preventing exposure. While there is no way to easily identify asbestos with the naked eye, there are some products and areas of the home that are more likely to have been made with the mineral.

Common Asbestos Products
  • Construction Products: Insulation, floor tiles, plaster, cement, caulk, adhesives, roofing, shingles, siding
  • Automotive Parts: Brake pads, brake linings, clutch linings, transmission plate
  • Electrical Materials: Boilers, furnaces, wires and cables, generators, heating ducts, valves, pumps, 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), hair dryers, crockpots, iron rests, ironing board covers, stove mats, fume hoods, fertilizer, potting soil

These are just a sample of numerous products that have been made with asbestos over the years. Today, asbestos is still allowed to be used up to 1% in certain products with historic use, continuing to put the public at risk of exposure.

Discover 5 Types of Products That Still Contain Asbestos

How to Identify Asbestos

In addition to being knowledgeable about common asbestos products, it can also be helpful to be aware of the six types of asbestos and how they have been used in the past. While all forms of asbestos are considered carcinogenic, researchers have noted that some types are more dangerous than others and more likely to lead to mesothelioma or another similar diagnosis.

The Six Types of Asbestos
Chrysotile

Chrysotile asbestos is the most common form of the silicate mineral. 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 type of amphibole asbestos can be identified by its brown color, leading some to refer to it as “brown asbestos.” It is most commonly found in Africa, and it 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.

Even for those who may know what asbestos looks like in its raw form, spotting the mineral in products or around the home can be next to impossible. For people who own older homes, it’s best to call an asbestos professional who can evaluate an area and take a sample to test for asbestos or other potential toxins. It’s important to remember that if a home was built before 1980, it’s not definitive that asbestos is present. Even if the mineral was used in construction, if it is not disturbed, it’s not necessarily considered dangerous either.

Some asbestos professionals have noted several basic visual inspections and considerations that may help identify asbestos products more easily and put homeowner’s minds at ease.

  • Check surface patterns on materials like roofing and shingles: Asbestos is known to have a dimpling effect or create shallow craters. Checking materials for uneven surfaces and patterns can help note areas of the home that could potentially contain asbestos.
  • 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, like window putty, drywall tape and joint cement.
  • Consider the location in the home: Bathrooms are often cited as having asbestos in the floor tiles, while basements also often commonly utilized the mineral for hot water pipes, furnaces, boilers, asbestos cement and duct work. Asbestos insulation is also most common in the attic.

Again, for anyone who suspects asbestos in the home, the best thing to do is contact a certified asbestos professional. They can perform an inspection to test for asbestos, and determine if any remediation is required.

Asbestos Exposure

Because of its heavy past use, the World Health Organization has estimated that 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos every year. 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, but many other industries put employees at risk of exposure every day.

Family members and loved ones are also at risk of secondhand exposure should asbestos fibers be brought home on clothing, equipment or even in a worker’s hair. 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.

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, like during a natural disaster, it can create an asbestos dust that the community could easily breathe in.

How Asbestos Exposure Occurs
Workplace Exposure

Over 125 million people are exposed to asbestos on the job each year. Despite the OSHA and EPA protections in place, workers are still at risk of exposure.

Learn more
Asbestos and Veterans

About 30% of all mesothelioma diagnoses are veterans because of the heavy use of asbestos across all of the military branches.

Learn more
Asbestos Near You

Certain areas of the United States are known to have a lot of natural asbestos, and each state may have their own regulations for how to handle asbestos.

Learn more

Handling Asbestos

There are strict laws and regulations on the federal, state and local level as to how asbestos can be removed and disposed of. If you suspect asbestos in your home or a building you plan to renovate or reconstruct, 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 and serious health hazards.

Tips for Finding an Asbestos Abatement Team
  • Choose different companies for the inspection and abatement project to avoid conflict of interest
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints about unsafe removal
  • Check federal and state training documentation for all crew members on the project
  • You should also receive a detailed document of the plan for the project, as well as state and federal regulations they must follow

Asbestos professionals can conduct an inspection to determine if the toxin is present and its extent in the home. They can also provide recommendations for next steps, like encapsulation (covering of the asbestos materials) or abatement (removal of asbestos-containing materials).

If removal is needed, homeowners should receive a clear contract of regulations and expectations for the project to ensure the asbestos is properly removed and disposed of. 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.

Supplemental Resources
  • Asbestos in the Home: Learn how to recognize, address and manage asbestos in the home, including information on professional assistance.
  • State Asbestos Contacts: Find the environmental contacts for your state to help locate certified asbestos professionals.
  • Asbestos Abatement Regulations: Learn what to look out for during remediation projects and the laws asbestos professionals must follow to safely remove the toxin.

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 the health effects of exposure. The details and enforcement of these laws is the responsibility of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Advocates have been fighting for an asbestos ban for years in the United States, as more countries around the world continue to take action to protect their citizens from the toxin. Asbestos is still legal to produce, import and export in about 70% of the world. With the passage of new bills like the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act in 2016, a future ban seemed closer than ever before, as the EPA evaluates toxic substances like asbestos. With changes in the administration and other new bills in motion, however, the future of asbestos still remains unclear.

Understand Asbestos Regulations
Asbestos Legislation

Various federal and state laws are in place to help protect workers and the public from dangerous asbestos exposure.

Learn more
Banning Asbestos

The fight to ban asbestos has been ongoing for decades. In more recent years, new laws have helped pave the way to a future ban, though there is still a long road ahead.

Learn more
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Written By Tonya Nelson Tonya Nelson

Tonya Nelson is an experienced writer and editor, who has published on a wide variety of topics, particularly in the health field. Her bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University sparked her curiosity for writing stories about environmental and medical issues. As the Managing Editor, Tonya oversees the content development process, ensuring every article and informational page published adheres to MAA Center’s editorial guidelines.