Asbestos refers to a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. Among these, chrysotile and amosite asbestos are most common.
Although asbestos fibers are microscopic in nature, they are extremely durable and resistant to fire and most chemical reactions and breakdowns. These properties of asbestos were the reasons that supported its use for many years in a number of different commercial and industrial capacities. The strength of asbestos, combined with its resistance to heat, allowed it to become the material of choice in a variety of products, including, but not limited to, roofing shingles, floor tiles, ceiling materials, cement compounds, textile products, and automotive parts. Asbestos is now strictly regulated as exposure to this toxic mineral can now be directly and scientifically linked to a number of lung and respiratory conditions including mesothelioma.
The commercial production of amosite, or “brown” asbestos, ended within the last decade and this type of asbestos is no longer mined. It was at one time, however, the second-most commonly used form of asbestos and, as a result, many individuals were exposed to it during its peak use. Amosite was employed as insulation in factories and buildings, as well as both an acoustical and anti-condensation material. Its use has been banned in most countries for approximately the last 30 years.
The most common type of asbestos, and only kind that is still mined, chrysotile was the most widely used in the world’s developed countries. Estimates show about 90-95% of all asbestos that remains in buildings in the U.S. and Canada is of this variety. Because it was so widely used, it accounts for the most health problems, though the companies that mine it continue to attest to its safety. Chrysotile is most often used in fireproofing and insulation products and was widely used aboard U.S. Navy ships during World War II and the Korean War.
As an amphibole variety of asbestos fiber, tremolite asbestos is associated with the development of malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers. Like other varieties of asbestos, tremolite asbestos is composed predominantly of magnesium and can range from off-white to a dark green in color. Tremolite is particularly common in vermiculite deposits. Tremolite-contaminated vermiculite was responsible for the death of hundreds of miners in Libby, Montana who worked at the W.R. Grace Vermiculite Mine.
Crocidolite asbestos accounted for about 4% of all asbestos once used in the United States. Crocidolite occurs in naturally-formed bundles that are long, sharp, and straight. This “blue” asbestos is harder and more brittle than other types of the mineral and can break easily, releasing dangerous needle-like fibers that are easily inhaled. Crocidolite, without a doubt, is the most lethal form of asbestos. It was often used in making yarns and rope lagging, and as a reinforcement material for plastics.
Anthophyllite asbestos, also known as “brown” asbestos, is composed predominantly of iron and magnesium. Its fibers are known to be long and flexible. Of the amphibole subclass, brown asbestos can be found in many talc mines and has been associated with some respiratory disorders. It is not conclusively associated with mesothelioma as other varieties of asbestos are. Because of its rarity, anthophyllite was not often used in consumer products, but could be found in some cement products and insulating materials.
Actinolite asbestos is a variety of the subclassification of amphibole asbestos and, as such, its makeup and consistency is similar to other forms of this subset. Made predominantly of magnesium, actinolite asbestos is extremely rare and ranges in color from white to dark brown. Actinolite was not known to be used in asbestos products because of its rarity, but is known to be found in metamorphic rock. As with all forms of asbestos, actinolite is a known carcinogen that can cause mesothelioma cancer.
Why Is Asbestos Hazardous?
The use of asbestos sharply declined in the late 1970s when it became evident that asbestos posed a threat to human health and safety. Today, asbestos is classified as a known human carcinogen. The property of durability—which made asbestos so desirable to manufacturers—is that which makes asbestos hazardous. Asbestos fibers are microscopic (roughly .02 the diameter of a human hair), and therefore, are easily inhaled. Once inhaled, the fibers cling to the respiratory system, including the lining of the lungs and inner cavity tissue. As asbestos fibers are typically quite rigid, they become lodged in the soft internal tissue of the respiratory system and are not easily expelled or broken down by the body.
Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to asbestos in some capacity as a result of the mineral’s extensive use in domestic, commercial, and industrial products. There is no safe type of asbestos and no safe level of exposure. Nearly all those with exposure history are potentially at risk of serious respiratory health complications.
Who Is at Risk of Exposure to Asbestos?
There were hundreds of occupations affected by asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used in thousands of commercial products and industrial capacities and those working with the material in these industries are potentially at risk of harmful exposure. Industries in which asbestos use was particularly prevalent included shipbuilding, commercial product manufacturing, power plants, and construction. Workers employed in these industries prior to 1980 likely encountered asbestos products. Veterans in all five branches of the military are also at high risk for asbestos exposure.
The following list of trades or occupations are extremely high risk for asbestos exposure. If you worked in any of these trades, you were likely exposed to asbestos throughout the duration of your career. Click on each occupation below to learn more about how exposure may have occurred:
While asbestos exposure is hazardous, not all asbestos products are inherently hazardous. Because asbestos must be inhaled to represent a health risk, only loose asbestos fibers or those in the air supply (a condition known as friable) represent a true hazard. Stable asbestos compounds, such as intact cement, tiles, or other products, are generally not an immediate hazard. Exposure to friable asbestos fibers was common when grinding, chipping, demolishing, or retrofitting asbestos products. Each of these functions could potentially release asbestos into the air supply where it would be easily inhaled.
Asbestos Exposure Risks Across the United States
Learn more about the risks of asbestos exposure in your state by clicking on the appropriate link in the table below. We have collected comprehensive information about potential jobsites where exposure to asbestos may have occurred.
Asbestos Exposure Across the United States
Health Conditions Associated with Asbestos Exposure
There are three major lung conditions traced directly to asbestos exposure. These are lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Lung cancer risk, typically associated with tobacco use, is known to be exacerbated by exposure to asbestos. Symptoms include coughing, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.
Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer of the lung and inner body’s cavity lining—a thin membrane known as the mesothelium. Mesothelioma is typically recognized as the most clearly attributable disease resulting from asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma originates in three locations. Pleural mesothelioma forms in the lining of the lungs and is the most common form of the disease. Peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma are less common and form in the lining of the abdominal cavity and lining of the heart, respectively. Although the prognosis for this disease is poor, treatment options are available. Financial assistance is available to help veterans and workers diagnosed with mesothelioma with medical treatment costs.
Asbestosis is a degenerative and progressive non-malignant, long-term, respiratory condition. Asbestosis results from the formation of scar tissue plaques on the visceral surface of the pleura. Asbestosis can represent a precursor to the onset of mesothelioma.
Resources Available for Mesothelioma Patients and Their Families
- Request a Free Mesothelioma Treatment Guide
- Connect with Top Mesothelioma Doctors
- Locate the Nearest Comprehensive Cancer Center
Asbestos Facts and Statistics
Although the use of asbestos in the United States was essentially halted in the late 1970s, with just a few exceptions, this toxic mineral has continued to have a real impact on the country during the last 30 years. The lives of many individuals have been adversely affected by previous asbestos exposure and this mineral can still be found throughout the country, particularly in old homes, factories, and commercial buildings. This continued presence of asbestos means that it is likely that more individuals will be impacted by the mineral in the years to come.
The U.S. Office of Compliance, charged with “advancing safety, health, and workplace rights”, as well as several other organizations concerned with asbestos and the dangers of exposure, report the following with regards to asbestos:
Asbestos has been declared a “known human carcinogen,” having been commonly associated with asbestos cancer.
The peak of asbestos use occurred from the late 1930s through the end of the 1970s.
Though anyone who was exposed to asbestos can develop asbestos-related diseases, US Navy veterans who served during World War II and the Korean Conflict have the highest incidence of these diseases.
Some 30 million pounds of asbestos are still used each year in the United States.
The number one cause of occupational cancer in the United States is asbestos, even more than 30 years after its use was essentially halted. Asbestos accounts for 54 percent of all occupational cancers, according to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
Since asbestos guidelines were issued in 1979, approximately 45,000 Americans have died of asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma.
10,000 Americans will die this year of asbestos-related diseases (including lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer) and 200,000 are currently living with asbestosis.
Asbestos is still mined in several countries throughout the world, including Canada, and is exported to many industrialized and developing countries.
No amount of asbestos exposure is safe; however, the longer and more intense the exposure, the more likely an individual is to develop mesothelioma cancer or another asbestos disease.
Exposure to asbestos can also increase the likelihood of other types of lung cancer. Smoking also exacerbates asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos can still be found in myriad homes, schools, and commercial or industrial buildings.
Asbestos was once used in more than 3,000 consumer products, including common household items such as toasters and hair dryers, some of which may still be in use.
Handling Asbestos and Asbestos Removal
Asbestos was handled haphazardly for decades. Many people that encountered it on a daily basis while on the job were totally unaware of its toxicity; thus, no protective gear was worn to prevent inhalation. Furthermore, employers who knew of the dangers of asbestos rarely shared this information with employees, allowing for asbestos contamination to become widespread—especially during the peak years of asbestos use from the 1930s through the end of the 1970s.
Today, however, there are strict guidelines governing the handling of asbestos. Those individuals who do not follow these rules are subject to fines and even imprisonment, depending on the extent of the mishandling. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put these guidelines in place to protect not only those who handle asbestos as part of their job, but anyone else who may encounter the material at home, in school, in a commercial building, or elsewhere.
The Role of an Asbestos Removal Contractor
Asbestos removal is typically required before an older building is demolished, prior to any maintenance or renovation that could disturb asbestos-containing materials or when asbestos-containing materials are damaged. An asbestos removal contractor will determine whether an HSE (Health and Safety Executive) license is required for the job. This type of license is usually necessary when there is a high probability that asbestos fibers will be released into the air during the scheduled work. The removal contractor will assess what is required for removal, perform the removal work, and dispose of the hazardous material.
There are stringent requirements set by federal, state, and local authorities regarding the methods for asbestos handling, removal, and disposal. The asbestos removal regulations vary state-by-state, so it is important to ensure that the hired removal professional is fully in compliance with all state laws and regulations.
More Helpful Resources
To locate an asbestos removal professional near you, visit:
To learn more about the asbestos regulations set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), visit:
Today, the dangers associated with asbestos are well known and there are numerous alternatives to asbestos products currently on the market. Therefore, when remodeling a home or renovating an office building, there are many options to be considered. Many of these alternative products are “green”, providing a safe alternative for the environment as well as for the individuals inside the building. Most are readily available and can be provided by a contractor. Safe Alternatives to Asbestos include:
Spray polyurethane foams can be used in any type of structure and these products are extremely safe in that they emit no harmful gases. Icynene, a water-based spray, is also an excellent choice for homes whose inhabitants have problems with allergies as it forms a very tight seal allowing little space for dust and/or mold. Manufacturers of these alternative products claim that their use reduces energy costs by about 30-35 percent annually. The only drawback is that they must be installed by a certified professional, which results in a slightly higher installation cost.
Some companies sell crack and crevice fillers and extenders made of natural materials that aid in insulation. These might include pecan shell flour, rice hull ash, rice flour, and wheat flour. Because these are totally natural, they are indeed a great "green" option, presenting no hazards to those who are exposed to them. However, not all contractors offer this option so it might take some shopping around to find one.
One of the most popular alternatives to asbestos, cellulose insulation is made from finely shredded newsprint. Chemically treated to increase fire resistance and reduce mold, cellulose fiber is generally made of 85 percent recycled content, making it another viable green option. It is good for use in commercial or residential buildings. As a matter of fact, US GreenFiber, a company that manufactures cellulose insulation and other natural products, notes that about 15 percent of all new green buildings constructed in the U.S. choose this alternative. Records show it cuts energy costs by about 20 percent annually.
Thermoset Plastic Flour
Thermoset plastics can be filled with wood flour and other low-priced fillers to reduce cost and provide a balance of good insulation and strength. The building and construction industry is one of the largest users of plastics in the world and have called upon products such as this for heat, cold, and sound insulation for both energy saving and noise reduction purposes.
Amorphous Silica Fabrics
These fabrics are high temperature materials used for a wide range of insulation and protection applications in industries such as aerospace, shipyards, molten metal and electric power generation. Generally not used for residential applications, the fabrics do contain fiberglass, which has come into question as a health hazard. However, in many industries these products have indeed replaced similar products that once contained asbestos.
Asbestos. Environmental Protection Agency website.
http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/help.html. Updated July 14, 2016.
Malignant Mesothelioma. American Cancer Society website.
Asbestosis. Mayo Clinic website.
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asbestosis/home/ovc-20215358. Updated July 13, 2016.