Asbestos and its dangers are now well known, but this wasn’t always the case. Among the potential health problems caused by asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer. Today, asbestos use is restricted in the U.S. but not completely banned, and it can still be found in many places, including older buildings and ships.
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 consists of bundles of long, thin fibers that easily pull apart.
Mined from the earth for centuries, many industries have used asbestos for several reasons. It is strong, absorbs sound, resists heat and fire, and 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 the use of asbestos didn’t reach its peak until the 1800s.
Types of Asbestos
These are a few of the most common minerals belonging to the group known as asbestos:
- Chrysotile asbestos is serpentine and has long curly fibers. This is the type of asbestos most often used in construction. While the other asbestos minerals have shorter, needle-like fibers, chrysotile has long fibers woven into 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 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 ships.
- Amosite is often referred to as brown asbestos. Brown asbestos is also more harmful than chrysotile because of its small, sharp fibers. It is the second most commonly used type of asbestos and was largely mined in South Africa.
- Tremolite is one of tohe most dangerous types of asbestos because of how easy it is to inhale the fibers. It ranges in color from white to dark green. It can be foun din some paints, insulation, sealnts, and roofing materials.
- Actinolite is a dark, dangerous asbestos type. It was not used nearly as often as other asbestos minerals but may be in insulation, cement, drywall, sealants, and paints.
- Anthophyllite asbestos is rare and very dangerous to human health. It may be found in some insulation and cement materials.
Friable and Non-Friable 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 easily crumbles, exposing dangerous fibers. If a material is non-friable, the asbestos is well encapsulated and doesn’t fall apart or release fibers easily. This makes non-friable asbestos much safer than friable asbestos.
How Has Asbestos Been Used 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 the construction of buildings and ships. This put asbestos in high demand. Industries used asbestos in several ways:
- Asbestos added strength to cement mixtures.
- Construction projects also used asbestos 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, and clutch pads.
- It can also be found in many other materials used in the 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, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision in 1991. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has also issued bans, including fireplace materials containing asbestos and asbestos in wall-patching compounds.
Is Asbestos Still Around 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
How Do I Know if I Have Asbestos in My Home?
Asbestos was used in construction more than almost any other industry. If your home was built before 1975, it may contain asbestos materials in:
- Joint and patching compound
- Floor tiles
- Ceiling tiles
- Insulation around pipes and furnaces and under wood burning stoves
- Roofing shingles
- Sidin shingles
- Textured paints and finishes, like popcorn ceilings
It’s not usually possible to identify asbestos by sight unless a material has an asbestos label. You only need to be concerned about asbestos if a material has been disturbed or you plan to do renovation work.
In these situations, you need to contact a certified asbestos professional. They can test the material and either encapsulate the asbestos or safely remove it.
Why Is Asbestos So Dangerous?
Asbestos exposure 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 contain 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.
Asbestos exposure is so dangerous because 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 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.
Asbestos and Cancer
Mesothelioma is a 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.
Asbestos exposure is the biggest risk factor for mesothelioma, but not everyone exposed to it 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 mesothelioma diagnosis is usually a death sentence, and it cannot often be cured.
Exposure to asbestos can also cause lung cancer, which is much more common than mesothelioma. Mesothelioma of the pleural tissue is the most common type. Fibers may also work their way to the abdomen, causing peritoneal mesothelioma.
Other Asbestos Illnesses
Asbestosis can also be caused by exposure. Asbestosis 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 worsens with time; although, some treatments can bring temporary relief from symptoms and make breathing easier.
Asbestos exposure can also cause pleural plaques and pleural thickening. These are areas of thickened pleural tissue that limit lung function. It can also cause pleural effusion, an uncomfortable buildup of fluid in the chest cavity.
Will I Get Sick if I Was Exposed to Asbestos?
Not everyone exposed to asbestos gets sick. Mesothelioma is closely tied to asbestos exposure but is still rare. If you have been exposed, you are not likely to develop mesothelioma, but you could have other related health problems.
In addition to being exposed to asbestos fibers, several factors increase the risk that someone will develop an asbestos-related illness. For example, smoking also significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
The 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. In some cases, genetic factors may also play a role.
Who Was 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. For individuals who have breathed contaminated air, however, 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:
- Shipbuilders and repairers
- Factory workers making asbestos-containing materials
- U.S. military veterans
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.
Is Anyone Still at Risk of Exposure Today?
Yes, although asbestos use is much rarer today than in the past, many people are still at risk:
- Asbestos lingers in many workplaces, especially older buildings. Workers may be at risk if their employers have not taken steps to test for and abate asbestos or if they have not provided them with training and safety gear. Workers in government buildings or older schools may be at risk. Those at the greatest risk are construction and renovation workers whose jobs involve cutting into or removing old asbestos materials.
- Rescue workers and individuals in the area at the World Trade Center also suffered exposure. While 9/11 did not expose people for a long time, it exposed the area to a large dose of asbestos fibers.
- People working in automotive repair, and even hobbyists, can be exposed to asbestos still found in many brakes and clutches.
- 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.
How Can I Protect Myself from Asbestos?
Asbestos continues to be a health hazard for many people, even though it is much less of a problem than in the past. To protect yourself and your family, know the risks and where you may find asbestos in your everyday lives.
The biggest hazards continue to be in workplaces. If you work in an industry that still contains asbestos, such as construction, or in an older building, you may have asbestos on the job.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets asbestos standards for construction, general industry, and shipyard workplaces. OSHA requires employers to assess risk, maintain acceptable air quality, and provide safety training for workers at risk of asbestos exposure.
Take the workplace training and use provided safety gear if you work around asbestos. If your employer is not abiding by OSHA standards, you can file a complaint.
Identifying Asbestos in the Home
Know which materials in your older home may contain asbestos. If any of these materials are damaged or if you plan renovation work, contact a professional asbestos company. They can test for asbestos and remove the materials or encapsulate them so they no longer pose a risk.
What Should I Do if I Was Exposed to Asbestos?
If you know you encountered asbestos, especially over a long period of time, talk to your doctor. The risk of developing mesothelioma is low, but any exposure to asbestos can be harmful.
There is no safe level of exposure, so take any encounter seriously. Talk to your doctor about screening for illnesses, including cancer. If you are not satisfied with the diagnosis or your doctor’s response, get a second opinion or look for a mesothelioma specialist.
It’s also important to talk to your doctor if you worked in an industry with high past asbestos use. Even if you don’t think you were exposed, or if you aren’t sure, it’s best to be proactive about health screenings.
Can I Be Compensated for Asbestos Exposure?
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.
Getting compensation. is important if you receive an asbestos-related diagnosis. You can expect to have high medical bills and related expenses.
Lawsuits and Settlements
One step you can take is to file a lawsuit against the companies responsible for the exposure. This is usually not a past employer but the manufacturers that provided asbestos materials to your workplace.
An experienced asbestos lawyer can help you determine where and when you encountered asbestos. They have the resources to investigate and to identify the responsible companies.
A lawsuit against these companies gives you a chance to receive a monetary settlement, which is how most cases end. You may also take your case to trial and seek a jury verdict for more compensation.
Asbestos Trust Funds
In many cases, the responsible companies filed for bankruptcy after facing thousands of asbestos lawsuits. Many restructured and created asbestos trust funds. These are funds that compensate victims.
To get compensation from a trust fund, you must file a claim and show where you encountered asbestos. A lawyer can help you do this and guide your decisions about making claims versus filing a lawsuit.
Compensation for Veterans
Many victims of asbestos exposure encountered it during active military service. Navy veterans were put at particular risk because of the extensive use of asbestos on ships.
If you suspect or know you experienced exposure during service in any branch, you may qualify for compensation through the Veterans Administration (VA).
The VA offers disability compensation and considers mesothelioma 100% disabling. You may also qualify for special monthly compensation and specialist health care.
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.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited byLuis Argote-Greene, M.D.
Luis Argote-Greene is an internationally recognized thoracic surgeon. He has trained and worked with some of the most prominently known thoracic surgeons in the United States and Mexico, including pioneering mesothelioma surgeon Dr. David Sugarbaker. He is professionally affiliated with University Hospitals (UH). His areas of interest and expertise are mesothelioma, mediastinal tumors, thoracic malignancies, lung cancer, lung transplantation, esophageal cancer, experimental surgery, and lung volume reduction. Dr. Argote-Greene has also done pioneering work with video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), as well as robotic assisted minimally invasive surgery. He has taught the procedures to other surgeons both nationally and internationally.