Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, many (if not most) homes, workplaces, and products contained asbestos. It could be found in household products, commercial products, construction sites, residential and commercial buildings, ships and other watercraft, etc. Unfortunately, it wasn't widely known that asbestos was harmful until the late 1900s when people began falling ill to asbestos-related diseases. To this day, asbestos is still present in the United States and has not been fully banned.
For decades, victims have continued to get sick because of asbestos exposure, and others will continue to as well.
First, let's take a look at what exactly asbestos is. Here's what makes asbestos so dangerous and why it was so widely used.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers and can be separated into thin, durable threads. Asbestos fibers do not conduct electricity and are resistant to fire, chemicals, and heat. For these reasons, asbestos has been widely used in many industries and a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire-retardant. If asbestos fibers are breathed in, they can cause asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue), mesothelioma, and lung cancer.
Unfortunately, though many suspected a link between asbestos exposure and lung disease, it was a long time before preventative measures were put in place. Many businesses made little or no effort to protect workers from breathing in asbestos particles, putting profits ahead of health and safety.
The Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos offers heat and chemical resistance, as well as fireproofing capabilities. It made for incredible insulation, especially in extreme temperatures or in environments at high risk for fires. Because of these qualities, it was used in cement, plastic, cloth, and other materials.
After decades of widespread use, however, it became clear that asbestos was dangerous. Asbestos is composed of tiny fibers that, when inhaled or ingested, can permanently become trapped inside the human body. The human body cannot physically dispel the asbestos fibers—ever. The result of these fibers being trapped in the human body is agitation and damage that leads to mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis, among other asbestos-related diseases. These illnesses can develop over decades, meaning an individual may not be aware that they were exposed or harmed by asbestos for years.
Origins and Types of Asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be found around the world. During the 1960s, asbestos mining was at its peak, with over 100 asbestos mines in operations just in the United States alone. These were open-pit mines, and the asbestos was released even as it was collected. With these types of mines, drilling would release toxins and asbestos fibers into the air—later we learned that entire communities, as well as employees, were exposed to asbestos. The asbestos was then processed and used within products to fortify them against heat, chemicals, and fire.
The Six Primary Types of Asbestos:
There are six primary types of asbestos. These types are defined as fibrous and can be separated as either amphibole (straight, stiff, short, and needle-like) or serpentine (pliable, curly, and long).
The most commonly used asbestos type in the United States, chrysotile is a white, serpentine asbestos type. An estimated 90-95% of asbestos in buildings in the United States is chrysotile. It was frequently used in construction materials, Navy ships, and automotive parts. It was considered an ideal asbestos type for its incombustible and lightweight properties. It could be found in roofing materials, cement, clutches, brake linings and brake pads, some plastics and textiles, as well as asphalt and rubber.
The second most used type of asbestos in the United States and commonly found in the shipbuilding industry, amosite is a brown amphibole asbestos type. It is said to make up roughly 5% of asbestos used in buildings throughout the country. It could be found in cement sheets, specific types of insulation (thermal, electrical, pipe, and chemical), types of fireproof products, tiles, and roofing, as well as gaskets and insulation boards.
A milky white to dark green colored amphibole asbestos type, tremolite was not commonly used in products. They have, however, been found to contaminate talc (used in baby powder and beauty products) and vermiculite deposits. It's been found in sealants, insulation, cosmetics containing talc, roofing materials, and plumbing materials.
A dangerously easy to inhale asbestos type that is blue and amphibole. It's suspected that this may be the biggest culprit for most asbestos-related diseases since its very sharp, fine fibers are so easily inhaled. It was rarely used in commercial products because it wasn't very heat-resistant, but it could be found in tiles, insulation, and cement.
A rare, amphibole asbestos type that has a dark brown color. It often contained other minerals such as iron, silicon, and magnesium. It could be found in cement, paint, insulation, sealants, and drywall products.
The rarest type of asbestos, anthophyllite is a yellow or brown amphibole asbestos type. It was not commonly used in commercial goods, but it could sometimes be found in certain insulation materials and cement.
The amphibole types of asbestos, according to studies, are perhaps more dangerous than chrysotile (the one common serpentine asbestos type). According to the CDC, amphibole fibers can more easily make their way into a victim's lungs and stay there for more extended periods. The studies are, however, inconclusive in regards to the most dangerous type of asbestos. They are all toxic and dangerous—that is known without a doubt.
How Was Asbestos Used?
Beginning in the late 1800s, asbestos was mined and used commercially in North America. Asbestos use increased during World War II and has since been used in many industries. For instance, the shipbuilding industry used it to insulate hot water pipes, steam pipes, and boilers. Construction companies used asbestos for roofing, fireproofing, sound absorption, and insulation. The automotive industry used it in clutch pads and vehicle brake shoes.
Asbestos has also been found in:
- Ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Vermiculite-containing consumer garden products
- Talc-containing crayons
- Talcum powder
History Of Government Regulations
During the 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned asbestos in gas fireplaces and wallboard patching because asbestos fibers could be released into the environment. Electric hair dryer manufacturers also voluntarily stopped using asbestos in their products. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required schools to inspect for damaged asbestos and eliminate asbestos exposure by removing or encasing it.
In 2000, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found that children's exposure to asbestos in crayons was very low. Regardless, crayon manufacturers eliminated talc from their products.
The EPA also responded to reports about health effects linked to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. After several tests, the EPA discovered the vermiculite only posed a small health concern. The agency advised consumers to:
- Use vermiculite outside or in a well-ventilated area
- Keep vermiculite damp during use
- Use premixed potting soil to limit dust
- Avoiding bringing dust into the home
The above regulations, combined with public concern about asbestos health risks, have resulted in a large decrease in asbestos use in the United States.
Recent events may signal that even more changes are on the horizon. In early April, 2022, the EPA proposed a rule that, if implemented, will ban the importing and manufacturing of products containing chrysotile asbestos. Learn more about the asbestos ban here.
Why Asbestos Exposure Still Happens
While its connection to serious respiratory illnesses is now well-known, asbestos is not completely banned in the United States. However, the use of asbestos has been extensively regulated by both state and federal laws since the mid-1970s, due to its carcinogenic properties and the other health problems it causes. The risk of exposure to asbestos is increased, however, because laws regulating the use of asbestos outside of the U.S. are often lax, so goods imported from other counties are still imported into the country.
Another common cause of exposure to asbestos is during the remediation or remodeling of older buildings, where asbestos was often used for insulation or as a fire retardant. The demolition of older buildings also poses a risk of releasing asbestos fibers into the air.
The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set safety requirements and limits for asbestos exposure in the workplace. People working with asbestos are required to have protective equipment. In addition, asbestos workers are generally required to shower and change clothes before returning home. This requirement protects the families of asbestos workers who can be exposed to the asbestos fibers on the worker's clothing or hair. However, asbestos exposure can and does still occur.
What are the Hazards of Asbestos Exposure?
People can come into contact with asbestos in their homes, communities, or at work. When asbestos-containing products are disturbed, tiny fibers are released into the air. If these fibers are inhaled, eventually they can become lodged in the lungs. The body cannot expel these fibers, which eventually can cause inflammation, scarring, breathing difficulties, and various cancers, including Mesothelioma, which is most always fatal.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all concluded that asbestos is a human carcinogen. Research shows that asbestos exposure can increase a person's risk of developing mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a lining that covers the chest and abdominal cavities. Research also indicates a link between asbestos exposure and other types of cancer. Asbestos can also increase a person's chance of developing:
- Asbestosis (scarring of the lungs)
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural effusions (fluid buildup between the lungs and chest cavity)
- Pleural thickening
- Lung cancer
How Does Asbestos Lead to Disease?
Asbestos, while it appears solid, is actually composed of thousands of tiny fibers. These asbestos fibers are easily inhaled by a person working with or around them. When they are inhaled and work their way into the lungs, the body tries to break down and remove them, causing inflammation as the body tries to rid itself of these foreign particles.
Because they are so small, asbestos particles and dust reach the smallest and most remote parts of the lungs. Asbestos fibers can also settle in the tissue around the chest cavity (pleura) or the abdominal cavity (peritoneum). When this happens, they cause inflammation and lead to pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma, respectively.
Asbestos fibers in the lungs can damage the organs by forming scar tissue. Because of this, the risk of lung cancer is approximately seven times greater for people who have had asbestos exposure compared to people who have not had such exposure.
Asbestos Exposure Symptoms and Screening
If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos at work, in your community, or at home, you should contact a doctor immediately. Regardless of whether you are experiencing symptoms, you should see a doctor and inform them of your exposure history.
Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure
Symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-induced illnesses may not appear for decades. When, and if, symptoms do develop, they usually include:
- Breathlessness or shortness of breath
- A cough that won't go away
- Coughing up blood
- Wheezing or hoarseness
- Fatigue or anemia
- Trouble swallowing
- Pain or tightening in the chest
- Swelling of the neck or face
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
Screening for Asbestos-Related Diseases
Your doctor may conduct a physical exam, lung function tests, or a chest x-ray. Medical professionals commonly use x-rays to detect asbestos-induced illnesses. While x-rays cannot find asbestos fibers, they can show signs of lung disease. A CT scan may also be used, as this has been more successful at finding lung abnormalities.
If your physician believes you may be suffering from a lung abnormality, he or she may conduct a lung biopsy. A bronchoscopy may also be performed as a less invasive option to the lung biopsy. Unfortunately, these tests cannot establish how much exposure the patient had or whether they will develop related illnesses.
Tests of a patient's mucus, feces, and urine may be conducted; however, these cannot determine the amount of asbestos present in the person's lungs.
Scarring of the Lungs: Asbestosis
While mesothelioma is the most well-known illness caused by exposure to asbestos, it is not the only one. Another significant illness caused by asbestos is asbestosis, which is scarring of the lungs. The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in England, in 1924, following the death of a 36-year-old asbestos worker.
Asbestos is composed of strands of long, fine fibers. When disturbed, portions of the fibers break off. When these fibers are airborne, they can be breathed in and become lodged in the lungs. While some may be caught by the body's defense system, others are not, and work their way into the trachea and lungs, and then into the small air sacs in the lungs called the alveoli. This is where oxygen replaces carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. Because the asbestos fibers are a foreign substance, the body produces cells that try to remove them. Often, due to the length of the asbestos fibers, they cannot be engulfed by the cells, causing fluid to build up in the alveoli, which in turn causes inflammation and, over time, scar tissue builds up. As the scar tissue becomes more extensive, it becomes asbestosis.
Asbestosis usually does not show up for decades after initial exposure. In its initial stages, there are no visible symptoms. However, over a period of time, the affected alveoli lose their ability to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen. The lungs become increasingly stiff due to the scar tissue, resulting in difficulty breathing.
There is no known cure for asbestosis. The symptoms can be treated with both medication and oxygen. However, asbestosis often leads to more serious medical conditions, including pulmonary hypertension, heart failure, and malignant mesothelioma.