Expert Fact Checked

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Francis Perry Wilson, M.D. Medical Reviewer

Asbestos is a natural mineral made of fibers invisible to the naked eye. It is durable, fireproof and resistant to heat and chemicals. Because of these properties, it was commonly used in many industries for decades. But, inhaling asbestos fibers can cause serious health issues like mesothelioma.

01. Asbestos Overview

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of minerals known for heat resistance and durability. Companies used it in thousands of products before the 1980s. Asbestos was popular for many decades because it is affordable, strong and fireproof.

But over time, mounting evidence showed that exposure to asbestos came with serious health risks. This includes asbestos cancers like mesothelioma and lung cancer. The United States began increasing asbestos regulations in the 1980s. Still, there are ongoing asbestos exposure risks from older uses of the mineral. The United States has not fully banned the mineral, and other countries continue to mine and use it.

Types of Asbestos

There are six types of asbestos used for commercial purposes. Each type belongs to either the serpentine or amphibole asbestos mineral family. Chrysotile asbestos is the only serpentine type. Amphibole asbestos is the classification for all other types.

The six types of asbestos are:

  • Actinolite: Actinolite is part of the amphibole family and is often dark in color. Companies used it in cement, insulation, paints, sealants and drywall.
  • Amosite: Also known as brown asbestos, this type is part of the amphibole family. Amosite is the second most common type of asbestos and makes up about 5% of asbestos used in the United States. Products that may have contained amosite asbestos include insulation, gaskets and tiles.
  • Anthophyllite: This type ranges in color from yellow to brown and is part of the amphibole family. Anthophyllite asbestos was not used often in consumer products. But it may have been in some cement and insulation materials.
  • Chrysotile: In the United States, chrysotile is the most common asbestos used. It makes up about 90% – 95% of asbestos used in buildings. Companies used it in a wide variety of insulation and fireproofing products. Chrysotile is the only serpentine asbestos and is also known as white asbestos.
  • Crocidolite: This amphibole mineral is also known as blue asbestos. It is less heat resistant and used less often than other types. Products that may have contained crocidolite asbestos include cement, tiles and insulation materials.
  • Tremolite: Tremolite is another type of asbestos from the amphibole family. It ranges in color from a milky white to a dark green. Products that may have contained tremolite asbestos include paint, sealants and plumbing materials.

All asbestos is fibrous, meaning individual microscopic fibers make up the mineral. The main difference between serpentine and amphibole asbestos is how each fiber appears. Serpentine fibers are long, curly and pliable. Amphibole fibers are short, straight, needle-like and stiff.

What Does Asbestos Look Like?

Asbestos looks like a soft and fluffy material, and each type is a different color. It’s made up of microscopic fibers invisible to the naked eye. Other asbestos characteristics include:

  • The shape of the fiber varies by the asbestos mineral type. Most types of asbestos have sharp, needle-like fibers. But chrysotile has longer, curlier fibers.
  • Some products with asbestos may look no different than those without it. For example, concrete with asbestos may look the same as concrete without asbestos.
  • Some products or materials, like insulation, are more distinct than others. For example, asbestos insulation may appear like cotton or pebbles. Fiberglass insulation looks more like wool.

Asbestos fibers were often used in many construction products. Common asbestos products include cement, insulation, sealants and vinyl floor tiles. Different products may have contained different forms of asbestos. For example, amosite asbestos was common in construction materials and fireproofing products.

Difference Between Friable vs. Non-Friable Asbestos

Asbestos materials are either friable or non-friable. Friable means the asbestos material crumbles into a powder by hand. Non-friable means it does not crumble by hand. Typically, this is because a more solid material is binding or containing the asbestos fibers. Friable products may pose a greater health risk than non-friable asbestos.

Friable Asbestos

  • The asbestos material can crumble or break by hand. Various activities can release these fibers into the air.
  • Fibers can easily release and pose a greater health risk than non-friable asbestos.
  • Example products: Drywall, plasters, popcorn ceilings, spray-on fireproofing, spray-on insulation and thermal insulation.

Non-Friable Asbestos

  • The asbestos material cannot crumble or break by hand. Activities like sawing, sanding or cutting can disturb and release fibers.
  • If undisturbed, non-friable materials are considered to be a lower health risk than friable materials.
  • Example products: Floor tiles, roofing felt, transite paneling, vinyl cement sheets and window glazing.

Individuals should treat any asbestos product as a potential health risk. Home renovations, natural disasters and other incidents can easily present asbestos exposure risks.

02. Where Asbestos Is Found

Where Does Asbestos Come From?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. This means deposits can be found in many different places around the world. In the United States, the west and east coasts have the most asbestos. To get the asbestos, companies had to mine it and then process it for use.

Asbestos mining was prominent throughout the mid-to-late 1900s. Imports from Russia are the main source of asbestos in the U.S. today.

Asbestos Mining in the United States

The United States no longer allows asbestos mining. The last asbestos mine closed in 2002. However, asbestos mining in the United States spanned more than 100 years.

In 1894, the first U.S. asbestos mine opened in the Sall Mountain area of Georgia. Over the next several decades, asbestos mining expanded across the country. The late 1960s and early 1970s were the height of asbestos mining in the United States. Shortly after, more strict federal asbestos regulations began. Asbestos mining declined, coming to a complete end in 2002.

In total, there were 142 active asbestos mines in the country. There are also 222 prospects or potential mining sites. Many asbestos mines were open-pit. This means miners started above ground and dug in to extract the mineral from an open-air pit. After this, asbestos manufacturers processed the mineral to create asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

Mine workers and those who lived near asbestos mines risked exposure and developing related illnesses.

Asbestos Mining and Milling Process

  • Asbestos is located near the earth’s surface, allowing miners to work above ground.
  • Miners remove the first layer of earth, often by blasting or drilling. This can release fibers into the air.
  • Asbestos miners then remove the ore from the earth.
  • Millers then separate asbestos fibers for use. The process involves crushing, screening, aspirating (vacuuming) and grading the ore.
  • Asbestos manufacturers can then incorporate asbestos fibers into a wide range of products.

By the late 1970s, workers were practicing a new mining method. Miners incorporated wetting agents into the process. Wetting the ore may help prevent the release of some asbestos fibers, which can protect workers from some exposure. Workers then crushed, sized, screened and graded the ore before shipment.

Mining Minerals Can Create Asbestos Dust

Mining asbestos or minerals near asbestos, like talc and vermiculite, can create asbestos dust. Raw asbestos easily crumbles into dust. The mining process can cause it to crumble and become airborne. With asbestos in the air, people can breathe or ingest it.

Is Asbestos Still Mined Today?

Asbestos is not currently mined in the United States. However, it is still mined in some parts of the world. Asbestos mining reached a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But as more people learned about its dangerous health effects, asbestos mining decreased.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) researches and evaluates asbestos use. The ATSDR reports the following general timeline for asbestos mining in the United States:

  • Late 1960s – early 1970s: More than 299 million pounds
  • 1987: 112 million pounds
  • 1989: 37 million pounds
  • 1993: 28 million pounds
  • 1997: 15.4 million pounds
  • 1998: 13.2 million pounds
  • 2002: Last asbestos mine closed

Although the last U.S. asbestos mine closed in 2002, other countries continue mining asbestos. The mineral is still imported under certain restrictions. The United States does not have a full asbestos ban, although chrysotile asbestos was banned in 2024.

03. Asbestos Uses

What Is Asbestos Used For?

Asbestos companies used the mineral in thousands of products to make them more durable and resistant to heat and corrosion. Some of these products include insulation, cement, flooring, roofing shingles and fireproof materials.

Asbestos as an additive was most common in the mid-1900s. Due to asbestos regulations in the 1980s, manufacturers began using asbestos alternatives.

Asbestos Products

Thousands of products once had asbestos as an additive. Regulations prevent many new uses of the mineral. Still, some products may legally contain low levels of asbestos.

Some imported products, like car brakes, still use asbestos. Other products contain 1% or less asbestos. Manufacturers do not need to disclose when they add asbestos if it meets this threshold.

Common asbestos products include:

Asbestos Occupations

Some occupations put workers at a higher risk of asbestos exposure. Often, these jobs involve:

  • Manufacturing products with raw asbestos. For example, using asbestos to create asbestos cement.
  • Working with materials containing the mineral. For example, repairing vehicles with asbestos-containing brake pads.
  • Working at asbestos jobsites or areas containing the mineral. For example, teachers working in classrooms with aging asbestos ceiling tiles. Repairs or renovations may also disturb and release these asbestos fibers.

Asbestos particles are not visible to the naked eye and are odorless. As a result, many workers are unaware of their exposure.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

People may risk secondary, or secondhand, asbestos exposure. Secondary exposure happens when a person comes in contact with asbestos fibers through another person. For example, an asbestos worker may not know they have asbestos fibers on their clothing. Anyone who encounters the worker, such as friends or family members, could then be exposed to the fibers.

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“When I was a little girl, my dad worked construction. He would come home from work, his jacket covered in dust. His jacket would be white, crusty from the drywall dust that he would be sanding off the walls. Anything that I had to do outside, I liked wearing my dad’s coat. It was just, you know, unbeknownst to us that it was chock full of asbestos.”

Heather Von St. James, Mesothelioma Survivor

Is Asbestos Still Used in the United States Today?

The United States does not have a full asbestos ban. But regulations restrict some uses of the mineral. While asbestos mining is no longer allowed, some asbestos imports continue today. In 2021, 320 metric tons of asbestos were used in the United States.

Older asbestos products and materials are still in use throughout the United States. Companies can also manufacture some products with small amounts of the mineral.

Two major areas of concern about asbestos in the United States include:

  • Older asbestos-containing products disturbed from damage, wear-and-tear or other activities. For example, buildings and homes built before the 1980s may contain legacy asbestos materials. Natural disasters, renovations and demolitions may disturb asbestos products in these buildings.
  • Small amounts of asbestos may be allowed in some consumer products. For example, paint, talc, soil and vermiculite may all contain trace amounts of asbestos. Consumer products like makeup may be affected.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is investigating the dangers of asbestos use. Many hope this will lead to a complete federal ban on the mineral.

04. Asbestos Health Risks

What Are the Health Risks of Asbestos?

Asbestos exposure may lead people to develop diseases, including mesothelioma and other types of cancer. Exposure to asbestos is a known health risk for workers and the general public. It can happen through primary or secondary exposure. This may take place at work, at home or in other places. Long-term, heavy exposure to asbestos increases the risk of asbestos disease.

Asbestos exposure occurs when someone inhales or ingests asbestos fibers. Those fibers then may embed in some organ linings and tissues. Over time, this may lead to the development of asbestos-related diseases.

Asbestos Cancers

Asbestos exposure may lead to asbestos cancers. These cancers can include laryngeal cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. Some studies show a link to other cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer.


Mesothelioma is a cancer of the thin lining surrounding some organs. Asbestos exposure is the only definitive cause of mesothelioma. It may affect the linings around the:

Mesothelioma has a long latency period. A latency period is the time between exposure to asbestos and the start of symptoms. Generally, this period is between 10 and 50 years.

Other Asbestos Diseases

Asbestos diseases include asbestosis, pleural thickening, pleural plaques and other conditions. Some of these can also be an indicator of asbestos cancer.

Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers can cause these illnesses. But no amount of exposure to asbestos is safe, including short-term exposure.

05. Asbestos Safety Tips

How to Lower the Risk of Asbestos Exposure

It is possible to limit asbestos exposure risks, even though there is no safe amount of exposure. In general, people can mitigate the dangers of asbestos by:

  • Familiarizing themselves with what products are likely to contain asbestos, so they can avoid them
  • Leaving undisturbed asbestos materials alone
  • Seeking professional help for asbestos handling and disposal
  • Using asbestos alternatives when possible

There are general workplace guidelines for asbestos safety practices. Workers in many high-risk asbestos occupations also have specific asbestos safety guidelines. By following these guidelines, workers can help protect themselves from asbestos.

Identifying Asbestos Products

People should not try to identify or handle asbestos products on their own. Anyone who thinks they have asbestos products or materials in their home should hire professionals. These professionals have specific training to identify, confirm and handle asbestos.

Homeowners with houses built before 1980 should be particularly careful. Various construction materials the builders used may contain the mineral.

Current regulations consider some products lower risk if asbestos is properly contained. Health risks are greater with exposed or disturbed asbestos fibers. Asbestos in the home could become a health risk during repairs or renovations. A natural disaster or regular wear-and-tear may also disturb and release asbestos fibers.

Safely Handling and Removing Asbestos

Asbestos may be dangerous to touch. People should not touch, move or dispose of asbestos-containing materials on their own. Certified asbestos abatement professionals should handle the removal of asbestos and dispose of the products. These professionals know how to properly identify, handle and dispose of asbestos materials. Anyone who improperly disposes of asbestos may be fined.

Steps for safely handling and removing asbestos include:

  • Inspecting and testing ACMs to determine next steps
  • Wearing proper protective equipment, like full-face mask respirators
  • Wetting the ACMs to help contain asbestos dust
  • Encasing ACMs in plastic before transporting and burying at designated asbestos disposal sites

Asbestos professionals understand all proper removal and mitigation steps. They also have the right equipment to safely remove asbestos.

Finding Alternatives to Asbestos

Companies can choose from many asbestos alternatives. These alternatives have similar properties to asbestos, but they pose lower health risks. Asbestos alternatives include foam, flour and other fibrous fillers. While safer than asbestos, these alternatives may still present some health problems. Before using an asbestos alternative, individuals can review the associated benefits and risks.

Amorphous Silica Fabrics
  • Form/Composition: Woven cloth typically sold in large sheets that can be cut to the desired size
  • Qualities: Offers chemical, heat and abrasion resistance
  • Products: Incorporated in products such as fireproof gear and thermal barriers
Cellulose Fibers
  • Form/Composition: Made from plant-based materials, such as shredded newspaper, wood or leaves
  • Qualities: Chemically treated to improve heat and fire resistance
  • Products: Incorporated in products such as insulation
Polyurethane Foam
  • Form/Composition: Often available in foam blocks, foam sheets or spray-on foam
  • Qualities: Molds to fill cracks and gaps
  • Products: Acts as insulation or filler for thermal products
Flour Fillers
  • Form/Composition: All-natural combinations of products such as wheat flour, rice flour, cork flour or wood flour
  • Qualities: Often mixed with a binding agent
  • Products: Typically poured into cracks and crevices for sealing and insulating

In some cases, these alternatives may replace an asbestos-contaminated material. One such material is Johnson & Johnson (J&J) talc-based baby powder. Some samples of the powder tested positive for asbestos.

Since the 1980s, J&J produced a cornstarch-based powder alongside the talc-based powder. The company has been increasing cornstarch powder usage in recent years. In 2020, J&J stopped selling talc-based powder in the United States and Canada. The company stated it would make the full, global switch to cornstarch-based powders in 2023.

06. The Asbestos Cover-Up

The History of the Asbestos Industry Cover-Up: Hiding the Dangers of Asbestos

Evidence suggests some asbestos companies knew about the dangers asbestos posed. Some of those companies chose to hide that information from the public.

By the middle of the 20th century, asbestos use was reaching its height in the United States. At the same time, the evidence against its safety had been mounting for decades. By the 1960s, research showed a clear link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.

Notable events in the asbestos use timeline include:

  • 1898: H.W. Johns, founder of the H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company, died from scarring of the lungs.
  • 1900: An autopsy performed in England became the first documented death from asbestosis, a lung disease caused by asbestos. The victim was a 33-year-old worker at an asbestos textile mill.
  • 1924: In a study, researchers connected asbestos to various health issues. Research continued about asbestos being a carcinogen.
  • 1929: Johns-Manville employees began to complain about health issues related to asbestos exposure. This was one of the first documented cases of employees bringing asbestos complaints to their employer.
  • 1933: An English factory inspector noted asbestos use should be restricted if it caused disease after a small exposure.
  • 1940s: Experiments sponsored by the asbestos industry found cancer in mice after asbestos exposure. The industry allegedly started working to hide the results.
  • 1942: The U.S. Navy documented its awareness of asbestos as a source of health issues.
  • 1943: States began enacting workers’ compensation benefits for asbestosis. By 1945, eight states had laws in place.
  • 1955: A study in England found higher rates of lung cancer and asbestosis among asbestos workers.
  • 1971: J&J internal documents showed the company’s talc products tested positive for asbestos.
  • 1976: J&J told regulators that the company’s talc products had not tested positive for asbestos.
  • 1978: The EPA banned the use of asbestos for spray-on coatings for decorative purposes.
  • 1982: Johns-Manville filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company was facing roughly 11,000 asbestos lawsuits.
  • 1985: The EPA established its first supervisory-level training centers for asbestos worker certification.
  • 2019: Internal J&J documents were released as part of a lawsuit. The documents showed the company knew about the asbestos in its talc-based products.
  • 2024: In March, the EPA finalized a ruling to ban chrysotile asbestos.

Internal records show some companies were aware of asbestos-related health risks. Despite this knowledge, these companies continued using or manufacturing toxic asbestos products. J&J is one company suspected of ignoring the health risks of asbestos.

A 2022 court case led to the unsealing of some documents from the 1970s. These documents show J&J funded controversial prison experiments on asbestos. The medical experiments involved injecting inmates with asbestos and talc. Some people have questioned if J&J had personal motives for funding this study.

Many believe high profits led companies to continue using asbestos, despite its health risks. Many asbestos disease victims have filed lawsuits against companies for their negligence.

07. What Are My Legal Rights?

Legal Options for Asbestos Exposure Victims

People who develop an asbestos-related disease may have legal options available. Some may qualify for a mesothelioma lawsuit or asbestos claim. Taking legal action may help these victims get compensation from negligent asbestos companies. This compensation can help ease financial burdens like lost income and treatment costs.

Mesothelioma patients and their families can talk to experienced mesothelioma lawyers. Depending on details of their exposure and diagnosis, asbestos victims may have various options.

Asbestos Lawsuits

  • Mesothelioma patients may file a personal injury lawsuit.
  • Loved ones of deceased patients may be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
  • Asbestos lawsuits may result in a settlement or verdict.

Asbestos Trust Funds

  • Many asbestos companies created trust funds during bankruptcy to pay current and future asbestos claims.
  • Asbestos victims must meet eligibility requirements for individual trusts to file.

VA Benefits

  • Veterans who experience asbestos exposure while serving and later develop a related illness may qualify.
  • Family members of veterans may also be eligible for benefits through the VA.
08. Common Questions

Common Questions About Asbestos

Is asbestos naturally occurring?

Yes, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and is not artificial. It is a fibrous mineral that forms in rocks and soil above and below ground. Companies that use asbestos must mine and process it. The term asbestos refers to a group of minerals that are used for commercial purposes.

Is all asbestos cancerous?

Evidence suggests that all asbestos can cause cancer. The EPA classifies all asbestos as cancer-causing. No amount of asbestos exposure is safe. But not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos-related disease. Other risk factors may also play a role.

How small are asbestos fibers?

Asbestos fibers are invisible to the human eye and can only be seen through a microscope. The thin fibers range from 0.1 to 10 micrometers long and may be straight or curled. Their small size makes it difficult to recognize asbestos exposure when it happens.

Is asbestos still used today?

Asbestos is still used globally in many products today. Under current asbestos regulations, the United States can import some of these products. Legacy asbestos is also present in many older buildings and materials. In March 2024, the EPA finalized a chrysotile asbestos ban. But until there is a total ban, the potential for asbestos exposure continues.