Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral found in deposits throughout the world. Its needle-like fibrous substance was widely used for its insulation properties in many industries and resulted in the development of mesothelioma for thousands of victims. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that occurs naturally in soil and rock deposits in multiple locations in the U.S. and other regions of the world. It was widely mined and used in many industries for its ability to act as insulation in high-heat situations. When used in construction, manufacturing or other industries, the tiny, needle-like fibers may become airborne or deposited as “dust” which can be inhaled or ingested and over a period of years, may result in the development of a highly-aggressive cancer known as mesothelioma.
Facts about Asbestos use
- Asbestos use has been documented as far back as 4,500 B.C. in Finland for earthenware posts and cooking utensils. In ancient Egypt, illness was identified as being related to mineral exposure.
- Asbestos was widely used in the modern world in construction and manufacturing in both military and industrial operations from the late 1800s through the 1980s.
- Asbestos use in the western world, including the U.S. and Canada, has largely been banned but many products from pre-1980 industrial use are still present in structures and ships. In addition, many parts of the world have not discontinued use.
Types of Asbestos
Like many minerals, asbestos is found in a number of forms. There are two main types of asbestos, each of which has different characteristics and also contain a number of subtypes. In addition, asbestos often exists alongside other mineral deposits and may pose a significant risk when those minerals are removed from the ground in mining operations.
Mining operations for asbestos have decreased significantly in the U.S. and Canada since its use was largely discontinued in the Western world but asbestos is still used in lesser-developed countries and still poses a significant mesothelioma risk.
Asbestos Serpentine Type
As its name suggests, serpentine asbestos is “curly” in shape. Its main subtype “Chrysotile” is the only serpentine asbestos that was used in production. It is considered to be the least dangerous but was the most common type of asbestos used. Its characteristics made it particularly suitable for insulation requiring some flexibility in items such as
- Drywall and joint compound
- Wall and other plasters
- Floor tiles
- Vinyl sheeting
- Roofing tiles, sheeting, shingles, felt and siding
- Accoustic, popcorn ceiling applicants
- Brake pads and shoes
- Stage Curtains
- Fireproof clothing
- Interior fire doors
- Pipe insulation
- HVAC connections
Though Serpentine fibers are considered less harmful as the curly fibers are less likely to lodge in body tissues and are easier for the body to “flush” out, it is still highly dangerous and most mesothelioma cases were due to this type of asbestos.
Asbestos Amphibole Type
Amphibole asbestos is considered to be much more dangerous. It is composed of straight, brittle needle-like fibers which break off easily and may stick into body tissues. Amphibole-type asbestos is more difficult for the body to deal with and many more fibers remain lodged in tissues and organs, eventually resulting in the development of mesothelioma.
Amphibole asbestos can be divided into
- Amosite (brown asbestos)
- Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
- Tremolite (a contaminant of many serpentine-chrysolite deposits)
Amphibole asbestos types were not as widely used but is considered to be much more dangerous. Amosite and Crocidolite sub-types were used in products such as
- Low density insulating boards and ceiling tiles
- Asbestos cement pipe (produced until the 1990s)
- Asbestos cement sheets
- Fire doors
- Limpet spray
Other products using mainly serpentine type asbestos were highly contaminated with tremolite asbestos, making those products more likely to cause mesothelioma than previously thought.
In addition, asbestos was used in some surprising products including:
- Artificial snow, known as “flocking”
- Cigarette filters
- Filters for gas masks
- Chemical process filters
- Additives to lubricants for high-heat processes such as drilling
- Dental cast linings
- Chlor-alkali membranes in chlorine manufacturing (still in use)
No category of asbestos is free from risk. Though serpentine asbestos is considered less dangerous, it was used in many products, while crocidolite asbestos was used in only about 5% of all products, up to 18% of those who mined this type of asbestos may have developed asbestos related cancer. And even little-used Tremolite, Anthophyllite, and Actinolite asbestos still pose significant risk.
Archeologists have found items containing asbestos that may be dated as long as 7,000 years ago in Finland and parts of Scandinavia. It was also used pre-A.D. in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt in embalming fluid, building materials and even in suits of armor.
As early as 3,000 B.C. asbestos-related illness may have been identified in slave workers of mining and construction who died un-naturally early, possibly due to mesothelioma.
Widespread use of asbestos in the western world began in the 1800s when its properties of heat-insulation were rediscovered. The danger of asbestos was also rediscovered in the late 1800s when inspectors in Great Britain identified it as one of the four deadliest dusts, in 1898. Despite that, use continued to rise and little was invested in insurance for occupational exposure.
Asbestos use peaked in the mid to late 1970s when the mineral was in use for thousands of products for occupations of shipbuilding to construction to automotive manufacturing. Over 400 products containing asbestos were in the U.S. military alone and the product was used in homes and office buildings until the 1980s though its use had begun to be curtailed.
Today, widespread use has largely been banned but it is still in use for certain “new” products and many buildings, homes and military vessels still contain asbestos products.
Where Is Asbestos Found Today?
Though asbestos is no longer used in most types of construction, many products in buildings, homes, and military vessels and vehicles still contain asbestos. It is mainly found in areas which were constructed prior to the mid-1980s when restrictions were imposed.
Asbestos does not corrode but may become more brittle over time. Removal of asbestos in any area or product should be performed by a qualified agency. In addition, many buildings will require asbestos “containment” rather than removal where asbestos is sealed in place to avoid releasing the dangerous fibers.
It may be found as part of buildings in
- HVAC ducts
If asbestos is suspected to be present in a building, home or other area, a specialized asbestos removal and containment company should be notified.
Other Minerals that May Contain Asbestos
Certain other minerals may be similar to asbestos due to physical construct. But in most cases, these substances were mined in areas which were coexisting with asbestos deposits. Miners who worked with these minerals may have been unaware of the potential for mesothelioma. These may include:
Vermiculite is a mineral that has a “shiny” or metallic appearance. It is used mainly for gardening and construction. By itself, vermiculite is not considered to be dangerous but when asbestos deposits exist alongside vermiculite mines, serious helath risks may occur.
Vermiculite mining in Libby, Montana was the site of the largest U.S. asbestos contamination occurence. Over 300 miners and family members have developed asbestos-related disease, including mesothelioma due to vermiculite mining that took place from the 1920s until 2000s.
Erionite is found in volcanic ash and may have an asbestos effect on those who come into contact with it. It is no longer mined and was only used in small amounts in the Western parts of the U.S. but it may be up to 800 times more threatening than most asbestos.
Taconite is an iron-containing sedimentary rock which was mined after World War II as a source of metal. It is used in the production of steel and may pose a risk to miners, steel workers and ship builders. The largest mines exist in Minnesota where a high number of mesothelioma cases have occurred.
Talc is known to be an irritant and may be the cause of certain types of cancer, however talc deposits may exist alongside asbestos deposits. Talc mines which are contaminated with asbestos may pose a significant mesothelioma risk.
Asbestos and Mesothelioma
Since the very early uses of asbestos, there has been suspicion that the substance may be dangerous. And even though asbestos was clearly identified as a significant risk in the late 1800s to early 1900s, widespread use continued until the 1980s.
Mesothelioma itself was not discovered until 1931 but was determined to be caused by asbestos in the mid-1940s. The first industry regulations made asbestosis an excusable work-related disease and required increased ventilation but asbestos use was still allowed.
Despite that knowledge, the mesothelioma-asbestos link was not widely disclosed by the U.S. government or industries using asbestos until the 1970s when certain products were initially banned, followed by a near complete ban in the mid-1980s.
Mesothelioma takes many years to develop, often 20 to 50 years. This means that many people who were exposed, are unaware of their risk. Even though asbestos is no longer in widespread use, new mesothelioma cases continue to emerge. Mesothelioma diagnosis and treatment options are improving but the disease still poses significant dangers and many remain at risk of the deadly cancer.