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Asbestos and Its Dangers – What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral that while natural and found in the earth, is not safe for humans. Exposure to asbestos can and has caused serious and fatal illnesses in many people. These include the very aggressive type of cancer called mesothelioma. Many people who were exposed at work without knowing about the risks of breathing in asbestos fibers later had to deal with poor health and a shortened life.

Although it has been used for thousands of years, the dangers of asbestos were not widely known until the 20th century. Today its use is restricted in the U.S., but it is not completely banned. If you have been exposed to asbestos it is important that you understand the illnesses you are at risk for and how to recognize the signs of being sick. You can also take advantage of asbestos and mesothelioma trust funds or file a lawsuit if you were exposed to this mineral without your knowledge.

men wearing asbestos protection gear

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of minerals, although it is often referred to as just one mineral. This group of minerals includes six different fibrous substances: amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite. These minerals are silicate-based, meaning they are made largely of silicon and oxygen, and their structure is made up of bundles of long, thin fibers that can be pulled apart.

Asbestos has been mined and used for centuries because long ago people realized that it has very useful physical and chemical properties. It is strong; it absorbs sound well; it resists heat and fire; it resists electricity; and it resists reaction with many chemicals that are corrosive to other materials. In addition to these properties it is abundant and inexpensive. Although it has been in use for thousands of years, mining and use of asbestos only reached a large scale in the 1800s.

Types of Asbestos

The six minerals that make up the group called asbestos can be divided into two main types: amphibole and serpentine. Chrysotile asbestos is serpentine and it has fibers that are long and curly. This is the type of asbestos that has most often been used in construction and other industries. The other five minerals are amphibole and have fibers that are shorter, needle-like, and brittle. Chrysotile has more applications because the long fibers can be woven into useful materials.

Asbestos types are sometimes also classified by color. Chrysotile, for instance, is called white asbestos. Crocidolite is also known as blue asbestos. It is the most dangerous of all the minerals because its fibers are very fine and sharp, making them more likely to be inhaled and to then cause internal damage. Although not used as often as chrysotile, blue asbestos has been used in tiles, insulation, cement, and other materials, especially on ships. Brown asbestos is another term for amosite, which is also more harmful than chrysotile because of small, sharp fibers. About five percent of asbestos used in construction in the U.S. is brown asbestos.

Asbestos is also often referred to as either friable or non-friable. This does not refer to a particular type of mineral, but to how it is used. Friable asbestos is any product containing asbestos that can be easily crumbled, exposing dangerous fibers. If a material is non-friable, the asbestos is well encapsulated and cannot be crumbled easily. This makes it safer than friable asbestos.

History of Asbestos in the U.S.

In the U.S. asbestos has been in use from the late 1800s when it was needed as the industrial revolution led a boom in construction of buildings and ships. It was mixed in cement to add strength to it; it was used in insulation materials and fireproofing materials; it was used extensively on ships for all kinds of applications, but especially as insulation on steam and hot water pipes and boilers; and it was used as sound absorption.

In more modern times asbestos has been used in many more materials and in a lot of industries. Two of the biggest uses for it have been in building and ship construction. Asbestos can be found in old ceiling tiles, floor tiles, glues and other adhesives, plastics, vermiculite gardening products, paints, coatings, brake shoes, clutch pads, and many, many other materials used in all areas of construction of buildings and ships, and other industries.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the use of asbestos was restricted in the U.S. Several different federal agencies have banned or restricted certain uses of asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started banning asbestos in 1973. It banned spray-on asbestos fireproofing and insulation products, and insulation with friable asbestos.

In 1989 the EPA banned nearly all asbestos-containing materials, but that was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has also issued bans, including fireplace materials containing asbestos, and asbestos in wall-patching compounds.

Asbestos Use Today

Today, many industrialized countries have completely banned the use of asbestos. The U.S. has not taken this step, but the use of the mineral is limited to certain products. Some of the materials that are in use today and that contain asbestos include:

  • Cement pipes
  • Gaskets
  • Roof coatings
  • Drum brake linings and disk brake pads
  • Components in automatic transmissions
  • Millboard
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Fireproof clothing
  • Corrugated and other cement sheets
  • Roofing felt

Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos occurs when the fibers become airborne and are inhaled or ingested. The tiny fibers can become part of the dust in the air and on surfaces, and anyone in the vicinity is at risk of accidentally inhaling or ingesting them. Materials containing asbestos that are not banned are supposed to have the fibers well encapsulated so that they are not friable and cannot become airborne easily. If any of these materials become damaged, there is a potential that asbestos will get in the air and that people will be exposed to it.

The reason being exposed to asbestos in these ways is so dangerous is that the fibers get lodged in tissues in the body and stay there for a long time. This ultimately can lead to damage, inflammation, and possibly a serious health condition, usually decades after repeated exposure. The most common area of the body for fibers to become trapped is the lungs and tissues around the lungs. The biggest health risks associated with asbestos exposure are respiratory illnesses and cancers.

All types of asbestos are known human carcinogens, meaning they can cause cancer in people. Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare but aggressive type of cancer. Exposure may also increase the risk of other types of cancer, including gastrointestinal, colorectal, throat, kidney, gallbladder, and esophageal cancers.

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is the rare type of cancer that affects the thin layers of tissue surrounding most organs. This is called the mesothelium. The most common type of mesothelioma affects the lining around the lungs, called the pleura. Mesothelioma may also occur in the abdomen, around the heart, and in the testicles. Exposure to asbestos is the biggest risk factor for mesothelioma, but not everyone exposed will develop it. This is an aggressive type of cancer that is often not diagnosed until it is in the later stages. For these reasons, a diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually a death sentence and it cannot often be cured.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis can also be caused by exposure. It is a progressive disease that causes scarring of lung tissue. It can be mild or severe, causing difficulty breathing, a chronic cough, and chest tightness and pain. There is no way to reverse or heal from asbestosis scarring. It only gets worse with time, although some treatments can bring temporary relief from symptoms and make breathing easier.

Other Factors

In addition to being exposed to asbestos fibers, there are several factors that increase the risk that someone will develop an asbestos-related illness. For example, smoking and being exposed to asbestos significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer. Dose and duration of exposure are also important. The larger the amount of asbestos exposed and the longer that exposure went on, the greater the risk. The type of asbestos is also a factor, with blue and brown being more harmful than white asbestos.

Who is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure and Related Illnesses?

Asbestos is a natural mineral found in the environment and everyone is exposed to it to some degree. For most people it is not a concern, but for those who have breathed air contaminated with more than the normal trace amount of asbestos, there is always a risk of illness. Those at the most risk for mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other related conditions, are people who were repeatedly exposed to asbestos for many years.

Most people with that kind of exposure have worked in an environment with asbestos for decades. These include miners, construction workers, shipbuilders and repairers, factory workers making asbestos-containing materials, firefighters, autoworkers, and more. Members of the U.S. Navy were exposed for decades on ships. Rescue workers and other people in the area at the World Trade Center attacks were also exposed, not for a long period of time, but in big doses all at once. Second hand exposure is also a risk. Family members of many of these workers were exposed and affected by fibers brought home on clothing.

Today these kinds of workers are at much less risk for asbestos exposure because of changes in regulations. Still there are some risks. Even people who don’t work around asbestos may be exposed. Older homes are a common source of asbestos fibers today. Homes built before the 1970s may contain asbestos and remodeling projects can expose it and cause fibers to be released into the air. Professionals trained in abatement can safely remove or encapsulate asbestos in homes.

Lawsuits, Settlements, and Trust Funds

Most people diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses were never aware they had been exposed to the mineral. Employers and asbestos material manufacturers are often considered liable for this unwilling and dangerous exposure.

If you were exposed to asbestos without your knowledge either of the exposure or the risks of exposure, you have recourse to seek compensation. Many people have received settlements through lawsuits if an illness can be linked to exposure to asbestos on the job or in the military. Some companies have been required to set up trust funds to provide compensation to people who come forward in the future. Mesothelioma is usually not diagnosed for decades after exposure, so these companies have had to set money aside for future cases.

You can get money from trust funds or lawsuits and settlements if you were exposed to asbestos and an employer or company can be found to be negligent. Let a lawyer with experience on these cases help guide your next steps and help you make your case.

Page edited by Dave Foster

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Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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