Asbestos and Its Dangers – What is Asbestos?
Although asbestos is a natural mineral, it is not safe for humans. Exposure to asbestos can harm the human body, causing serious and even fatal illnesses in many people. These often deadly illnesses include the aggressive type of cancer called mesothelioma. Many people who were exposed to asbestos without later experienced poor health and a shortened life.
Although used for thousands of years, the dangers of asbestos were not widely known until the 20th century. Today, asbestos use is restricted in the U.S. However, asbestos is not completely banned. If you have been exposed to asbestos, it is important for you to understand you are at risk and to look for the beginning symptoms of illness. Also, you may be able to file a lawsuit or take advantage of asbestos and mesothelioma trust funds, especially if you were exposed without your knowledge.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is actually a group of minerals, although it is often referred to as a single mineral. This group of minerals includes six different fibrous substances. These silicate-based substances are made of silicon and oxygen and include amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite. The structure of these mineral consists of bundles of long, thin fibers that easily pull apart.
Mined from the earth for centuries, asbestos has been used for several reasons. It is strong, absorbs sound, resists heat and fire, and also resists electricity and corrosive chemicals. In addition to these properties, asbestos is abundant and inexpensive. Although it has been in use for thousands of years, large scale mining and use of asbestos didn’t reach its peak until the 1800s.
Types of Asbestos
Chrysotile asbestos is serpentine and has long curly fibers. This is the type of asbestoshas most often been used in construction. While the other asbestos minerals have shorter, needle-like fibers, chrysotile has long fibers can be woven into useful materials. Because of its long fiber construction, chrysotile can be used for a wide range of applications.
Asbestos types are sometimes classified by color. Chrysotile, for instance, is called white asbestos. Crocidolite is also known as blue asbestos. Crocidolite is the most dangerous asbestos mineral because its fibers are fine and sharp. These properties make them easier to inhale and cause internal damage to the body. Although not used as often as chrysotile, blue asbestos has been used in tiles, insulation, cement, and other materials, especially on naval ships.
Amosite is often referred to as brown asbestos. Brown asbestos 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 can also be classified as either friable or non-friable. This does not refer to a particular type of mineral, but to how the asbestos is used. Friable asbestos 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 non-friable asbestos safer than friable asbestos.
History of Asbestos in the U.S.
In the U.S., asbestos has been used since the late 1800s. During the Industrial Revolution, there was a huge boom in construction of buildings and ships. This put asbestos in high demand. It was mixed into cement to add strength. Asbestos was also used in insulation materials and fireproofing materials. It was used extensively on ships especially as insulation on steam and hot water pipes and boilers. Asbestos was also commonly used to absorb sound.
Today, asbestos can be found in old ceiling tiles, floor tiles, glues and other adhesives, plastics, vermiculite gardening products, paints, coatings, brake shoes, clutch pads. It can also be found in and many other materials used in construction of buildings and ships.
In the 1970s, the use of asbestos was finally restricted in the U.S. Several different federal agencies have banned or restricted asbestos use. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began banning asbestos in 1973. It banned spray-on asbestos fireproofing and insulation products, and other insulation containing friable asbestos.
In 1989, the EPA banned nearly all asbestos-containing materials. However, that decision 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. While the United States has not completely banned the substance, asbestos use has been limited to certain products. Some of the asbestos-containing materials still in use today include:
- Cement pipes
- Roof coatings
- Drum brake linings and disk brake pads
- Components in automatic transmissions
- Mill board
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Fireproof clothing
- Corrugated and other cement sheets
- Roofing felt
Exposure to asbestos occurs when the tiny fibers pull apart, become airborne, and are inhaled or ingested. Fibers become dust in the air and settle on surfaces. When this happens, anyone in the vicinity is at risk of inhaling or ingesting them. Materials that legally containing asbestos must have the fibers well encapsulated. This makes them non friable so they cannot easily become airborne. However, if any of these materials become damaged, there is potential the asbestos will get in the air and people will become exposed.
The reason asbestos exposure is so dangerous is the tiny fibers become lodged in body tissue, remaining there for long periods of time. This can ultimately lead to tissue damage, inflammation, and possibly serious health conditions that may present symptoms years after initial exposure. The area of the body most susceptible to fiber lodging is the lungs. The biggest health risks associated with asbestos exposure are respiratory illnesses and cancers.
All types of asbestos are known human carcinogens. This means they can cause cancer after exposure. 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 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 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.
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 also significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer. Dose and duration of asbestos exposure are also important. The larger the amount of exposed asbestos and the longer exposure occurred, the greater the risk. The type of asbestos is also a factor, with blue and brown being more dangerous than white.
Who is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure and Related Illnesses?
Everyone who is exposed to asbestos has some degree of risk. For most people, it is not a concern. However, for individuals who have breathed contaminated air, there is a much greater risk of illness. Those at the most risk for mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other related conditions, are individuals repeatedly exposed to asbestos for many years.
Most people with extreme exposure have worked in an environment with asbestos for decades. Professions with the highest risk include miners, construction workers, shipbuilders and repairers, factory workers making asbestos-containing materials, firefighters, autoworkers, and more.
Members of the U.S. Navy were also exposed for decades on ships.
Rescue workers and individuals in the area at the World Trade Center attacks were also exposed. While 9/11 did not expose people for a long period of time, it did expose the area to a large dose of asbestos fibers.
Second hand asbestos exposure is also a risk. Family members of many of these workers were exposed and affected by fibers brought home on clothing.
Today, these professions experience a reduced risk for asbestos exposure due to regulations changes. However, some risk still remains. Even people who don’t work around asbestos may be exposed. Today, Older homes are a common source of asbestos fibers. Homes built before the 1970s may contain asbestos, and remodeling projects could lead to exposure. Professionals trained in asbestos 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 experienced asbestos exposure. Employers and asbestos material manufacturers are often considered liable for this unwilling dangerous exposure.
If you were exposed to asbestos without your knowledge, you have recourse to seek compensation. If your illness can be linked to asbestos on the job or in the military, you may be eligible to receive a settlement. Some companies have been required to establish trust funds to provide compensation to those affected by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is usually not diagnosed for decades after exposure, so these companies have set money aside for future cases.
If you were exposed to asbestos and a company can be found negligent, you may be eligible to receive payment from trust funds, lawsuits, or settlements. Let a lawyer with experience help guide your next steps and help you make your case.
Page Edited by Dave Foster
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by
Luis Argote-Greene, MD
- Penn Medicine. Abramson Cancer Center. (n.d.) Types of Asbestos That Can Cause Asbestos Diseases.
Retrieved from: https://www.pennmedicine.org/cancer/types-of-cancer/mesothelioma/asbestos-cancer/types-of-asbestos
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2018, August 20). Asbestos Laws and Regulations.
Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/asbestos-laws-and-regulations
- National Institutes of Health. National Cancer Institute. (2017, June 7). Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.
Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet
- National Institutes of Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. (2019, January 28). Asbestosis.
Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000118.htm
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