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Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring silicate minerals made up of thin, microscopic fibers. Asbestos offers heat and chemical resistance, fireproofing and strength. As a result, asbestos was a popular additive to a variety of products. Individuals exposed to asbestos face health risks including cancer and other illnesses.

01. Where Asbestos Is Found

Where Does Asbestos Come From?

Asbestos is found in naturally occurring deposits around the world. Asbestos deposits are located across the United States, mainly in the western U.S. and eastern coastal states.

Although asbestos mining was prominent throughout the mid to late 1900s, the last asbestos mine closed in 2002. Currently, imports from Russia are the main source of asbestos for the United States.

Asbestos Mining in the United States

Asbestos mining in the United States reached its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were more than 100 operating mines.

Open-pit mining was originally the main practice for removing asbestos from the ground in the United States. Once removed, asbestos manufacturers processed the mineral to create asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

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, typically by blasting or drilling.
  • Asbestos miners then remove the ore from the earth.
  • Millers crush, fiberize, screen, aspirate and grade the ore. This process removes asbestos fibers for use.
  • Asbestos manufacturers can then incorporate asbestos fibers into a wide range of products.

The process of removing the earth’s top layer to mine ore at the surface is referred to as open-pit mining. The drilling and blasting during open-pit mining often released dangerous fibers and toxins into the air. As a result, miners, workers and residents near the mines were at risk of asbestos exposure. Those exposed risk illnesses such as mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers.

By the late 1970s, miners practiced a new method for removing ore. Miners incorporated wetting agents into the process. Wetting the ore helped prevent the release of fibers. Workers then crushed, sized, screened and dewatered the ore prior to shipment. Public health officials tasked with monitoring emissions noted the wetting technique as a safer alternative.

Is Asbestos Still Mined Today?

Asbestos mines are no longer in operation in the United States. Asbestos mining reached a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Once the dangers of exposure became widely recognized, production gradually decreased.

Timeline of Asbestos Mining in the United States
Year(s) of Production Amount of Asbestos Mined*
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

*Data from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Although the last asbestos mine closed in 2002, other countries continue to mine the mineral. Asbestos is not fully banned in the United States and can be imported under certain restrictions.

02. Types of Asbestos

Types of Asbestos

There are six main types of asbestos. Each type belongs to the serpentine or amphibole asbestos mineral family. Chrysotile asbestos is the only serpentine type. All others are classified as amphibole asbestos.

The six main types of asbestos are:

  • Chrysotile
  • Actinolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite
  • Tremolite

All asbestos is fibrous. The main difference between serpentine and amphibole asbestos is fiber appearance. Serpentine fibers are long, curly and pliable. Amphibole fibers are short, straight, needle-like and stiff.

What Does Asbestos Look Like?

  • Individual fibers are microscopic and not visible to the naked eye.
  • Color differs based on asbestos type.
  • Fiber shape differs based on asbestos mineral type.
  • Most fibers are sharp and needle-like.

Asbestos fibers were frequently used in many products, including cement, insulation, sealants and tiles. Different types of asbestos were used in these products. For example, amosite asbestos is common in construction materials and fireproofing products.

03. Most Dangerous Type

What Type of Asbestos Is the Most Dangerous?

Some studies suggest amphibole asbestos is more dangerous than chrysotile. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes amphibole fibers can stay in the lungs for longer periods of time. However, research regarding the most dangerous type of asbestos is inconclusive.

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“Exposure to amphiboles may result in a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than exposure to chrysotile.”

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)

Is All Asbestos Dangerous?

Despite studies finding varying risks associated with asbestos types, all asbestos is dangerous. Exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to cancers and other illnesses.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not regulate asbestos types differently based on perceived danger. Evidence was submitted to OSHA in an attempt to prove chrysotile is less dangerous than other amphibole types. OSHA emphasized the decision to treat the fibers similarly with the following reasons:

  1. The evidence shows a similar correlation between chrysotile and amphibole potency in relation to lung cancer and asbestosis.
  2. Evidence supporting chrysotile as less toxic than other types was primarily associated with mesothelioma cases.
  3. This evidence was unpersuasive and did not justify regulating chrysotile less strictly.

Studies continue to research the level of risk associated with each asbestos type.

Friable vs. Non-Friable Asbestos

Asbestos materials are either friable or non-friable. Friability depends on how easily the material can be broken down by hand. Friable products typically pose more of a health risk than non-friable asbestos.

Friable Asbestos

  • Can crumble or break by hand
  • Fibers release easily and pose a greater health risk than non-friable asbestos
  • Example products: Spray-on insulation, thermal insulation and other spray-on coatings

Non-Friable Asbestos

  • Cannot crumble or break by hand but may be disturbed by sawing, sanding or cutting
  • Poses less of a health risk than friable asbestos if undisturbed or securely contained within other materials
  • Example products: Vinyl floor tiles, roofing felt, transite paneling and window glazing

Non-friable asbestos may not pose a risk if properly contained. However, individuals should treat any asbestos product as a potential health risk. Home renovations, natural disasters and other incidents can easily present asbestos exposure risks.

04. Asbestos Uses

What Is Asbestos Used For?

Asbestos was used in a variety of products mainly for heat resistance and fireproofing. Asbestos use peaked towards the late 1900s. The mineral was used in insulation, cement, flooring, roofing and fireproof products. This practice was popular from the 1930s to the 1970s. In 1979, asbestos regulations forced manufacturers to use safer asbestos alternatives.

Is Asbestos Still Used in the United States Today?

Asbestos is not yet fully banned in the United States. Asbestos mining is no longer allowed, but the mineral can be imported. Asbestos-containing products are still in use throughout the U.S. Some products may also legally be manufactured with small amounts of the mineral.

Two major concerns about asbestos in the United States include:

  • Older asbestos-containing products can become exposed from damage, wear-and-tear or other disturbances. For example, buildings and homes built before 1979 likely contain asbestos materials that haven’t been replaced or removed.
  • Small amounts of asbestos may be allowed in some consumer products.

Asbestos Products

Asbestos was once used in thousands of products. Regulations prevent many new products from containing the mineral, but some may legally contain low levels of asbestos. Manufacturers are also not required to disclose asbestos in the ingredients list if there is less than 1% asbestos.

Common asbestos products include:

  • Insulation
  • Cement
  • Floor tiles
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Drywall
  • Adhesives
  • Shingles

Asbestos Occupations

Historically, there are many occupations that have put workers at risk of asbestos exposure. The term “asbestos occupation” refers to any job potentially exposing workers to asbestos fibers.

Asbestos occupations involve:

  • Manufacturing products with raw asbestos (Example: Using asbestos to create asbestos cement)
  • Working with materials containing the mineral (Example: Repairing vehicles with asbestos-containing brakes)
  • Working in buildings containing the mineral (Example: Teachers working in classrooms with aging asbestos ceiling tiles)

The main concern with asbestos in the workplace is if fibers become airborne. Individuals can then breathe in or swallow the fibers. Many jobs required workers to sand, cut or repair asbestos products. This often created asbestos dust. Asbestos building materials may also face wear and tear over the years, which can expose fibers in classrooms, public buildings and other structures.

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

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Individuals are at risk of secondhand exposure if they come into contact with asbestos fibers from someone else who was exposed. For example, women and family members were often exposed when men brought asbestos fibers home on their clothing. Men most frequently held high-risk asbestos occupations.

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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

05. Exposure Health Risks

What Are the Health Risks of Asbestos?

Asbestos fibers are dangerous when they are inhaled or swallowed and become embedded in organ linings and tissues. Asbestos-related diseases include mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other illnesses.

Asbestos Cancers

Asbestos cancers include mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer. Studies have found correlations between asbestos and several other cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer.

Due to their needle-like structure, fibers can easily embed in organ linings and tissues. This can then cause irritation, mutation and cancer. Long-term exposure to asbestos fibers increases the risk of asbestos cancer.

Asbestos Diseases

Asbestos diseases include asbestosis, pleural thickening, pleural plaques and other conditions. These illnesses are typically caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers. However, no amount of exposure is safe, including short-term exposure.

Asbestos diseases can also be an indicator of asbestos cancer.

06. Asbestos Safety Tips

How to Avoid the Dangers of Asbestos

People can avoid the dangers of asbestos by:

  • Understanding what products are likely to contain asbestos
  • Seeking professional help for asbestos handling and disposal
  • Using asbestos alternatives when possible

1. Identifying Asbestos Products

Individuals cannot easily identify asbestos products on their own. However, there are professionals trained at identifying and confirming the presence of asbestos.

Most asbestos products were manufactured prior to 1979. Items facing high temperatures or friction are likely to contain the mineral. Homeowners with houses built prior to 1979 should be particularly careful.

Some products may be deemed “safe” if asbestos is properly contained. Health risks emerge when the fibers become exposed. Asbestos in the home could become a health risk when conducting repairs or renovations. Asbestos materials may also become exposed during a natural disaster or after wear and tear.

2. Safely Handling and Removing Asbestos

Individuals should never touch, move or dispose of asbestos-containing material on their own. Asbestos abatement professionals are trained and certified in identifying, handling and properly disposing of the material.

Asbestos materials cannot be disposed of in normal trash bins and waste sites. They require specific packaging and labeling before disposal at designated locations.

3. Finding Alternatives to Asbestos

There are many asbestos alternatives. These options have similar properties and less severe health effects. Asbestos alternatives may include:

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

Asbestos substitutes may present other health problems, such as lung disease. Before using an asbestos alternative, individuals should understand the associated benefits and risks.

07. Asbestos Claims

Asbestos Claims

If individuals have been exposed to asbestos and developed a related illness, they may be able to file a claim. Asbestos claims can help with treatment costs and loss of income. Asbestos victims should discuss their exposure, diagnosis and financial needs with an experienced mesothelioma lawyer to understand their options.

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