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. Here's what makes asbestos so dangerous and why was it so widely used.
The Harsh Reality 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).
These six types of asbestos are:
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.
Friable Versus Non-Friable Asbestos
Friable or non-friable are ways to describe asbestos materials and depend on how easily the asbestos is broken down by hand. It's believed that friable products are a greater health risk than non-friable asbestos products.
Friable asbestos products can typically be easily broken down by hand or easily crumble when touched, quickly releasing asbestos fibers that could be inhaled or ingested. They pose a much greater health risk to people than non-friable asbestos products and can be found in thermal insulation, regular insulation, and spray-on coatings.
Non-friable asbestos products are not easily broken up by hand nor do they easily crumble when disturbed. They typically pose less of a health risk than friable asbestos products, especially if they are contained within other materials and are not easily disturbed (i.e. are within walls, paneling, etc). Products that may contain non-friable asbestos include some vinyl floor tiles, roofing felt, certain types of window glazing, and transite paneling.
Any type of asbestos, no matter the level of risk, should be treated as a dangerous hazard and potential health risk.
The Dangers Posed by Asbestos to This Day
All asbestos mines within the United States were closed by the early 2000s, with the final one closing in 2002. Asbestos is also no longer widely used in products throughout the country. So why do people need to still be wary?
The United States may not still mine asbestos, but they do now import asbestos from other countries that still mine and export asbestos. Asbestos has never been entirely banned from our country, and some products are still legally manufactured with small amounts of asbestos. It's what's called "working within legal limits" and any company caught working outside those could be looking at potential asbestos lawsuits against them. For example, there are consumer products that contain asbestos, but a manufacturing company doesn't have to disclose that it's in their ingredient list if it is less than 1% of their product.
There are also still many buildings, ships, and railroads that contain asbestos that was installed decades ago and never remediated. If this asbestos is disturbed and released, it can be very toxic to those around when that happens. You can expect that most homes and buildings constructed before 1979 have asbestos-containing materials.
Are You at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?
While there are precautions that can be taken to prevent asbestos exposure, many individuals may not have even been aware that they were exposed to asbestos until they received a diagnosis for an asbestos-related disease. There are many established trades that have worked with and around products containing asbestos. Take a look at our list of asbestos products and trades that are considered at-risk to identify if you may also be at risk.