Asbestos refers to a group of six types of naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos minerals are made up of fine, durable fibers and are resistant to heat, fire and many chemicals. Once called the "miracle mineral" for such properties, asbestos was used in a slew of everyday products, from building materials to fireproof protective gear. It is now widely known that exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a fatal cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, as well as other cancers and lung-related illnesses.
All six types of asbestos minerals have common characteristics. All forms of the mineral are odorless and tasteless. When asbestos is present in a material or product, it cannot be detected by a visual examination and must be tested in a laboratory. These properties often make it difficult to determine specific risks of asbestos exposure. However, any exposure to the group of minerals can lead to pleural mesothelioma and other diseases such as lung cancer or asbestosis.
It is important for individuals to know their risks, especially if they have a history of asbestos exposure. People who have had exposure should learn how to protect themselves through medical monitoring.
In addition to the properties shared by all asbestos minerals, each of the six types has its own distinct features. The types are separated into categories based on the physical appearance of individual asbestos fibers. Asbestos minerals are divided into two categories: Serpentine asbestos and amphibole asbestos.
Serpentine asbestos refers to asbestos made up of long, curly fibers. This category only includes one mineral, called chrysotile, also known as white asbestos. It was the most commercially used form of asbestos. Its flexible nature easily allowed it to be used in products and combined with other elements. Prior to widespread knowledge of pleural mesothelioma and its connection to asbestos, the mineral was hailed for its fireproof and heat-resistant qualities. It was used throughout the U.S. and all over the world, finding its way into products that still pose a hazard today.
Amphibole asbestos includes the other five asbestos minerals: Amosite, crocidolite (also called blue asbestos), tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite. These minerals are composed of brittle, needle-shaped fibers. Because of these properties, amphibole fibers are more hazardous than chrysotile when inhaled or ingested. However, the same characteristics usually make it a bad candidate for use in commercial products. Exposure to amphibole asbestos is mostly limited to exposure to naturally occurring deposits.
Asbestos exposure can cause a number of health problems. The most dangerous is pleural mesothelioma, also known as malignant pleural mesothelioma. This cancer is typically caused by one of three types of exposure to asbestos: Occupational exposure, secondary exposure or environmental exposure.
Occupational asbestos exposure refers to coming into contact with asbestos while on the job. Occupational exposure, the most common cause of pleural mesothelioma, generally happens with blue-collar jobs, and most examples came prior to the 1980s. At that time, federal laws began severely restricting the mineral’s use. Individuals were most likely to suffer from asbestos exposure if they worked in construction, shipyards, power plants or other hazardous work environments.
Secondary asbestos exposure includes occurrences among family members of asbestos workers. Men who worked with asbestos brought fibers home on their dirty clothes each night. Then wives or other family members shook out the clothing to get rid of asbestos-laden dust, unknowingly exposing themselves and others to the deadly substance.
Environmental asbestos exposure is any indirect exposure, caused either by environmental pollution or by naturally occurring asbestos. Naturally occurring asbestos deposits have been found throughout the country, particularly in parts of California and Montana. In these areas, simple outdoor activities such as gardening or riding a bicycle may disturb asbestos fibers and release them into the air, where people may ingest or inhale them. Similarly, environmental exposure may occur as a result of nearby asbestos mining or manufacturing. This can lead to air and soil pollution that leaves the surrounding area contaminated with asbestos.
When airborne asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can become lodged in the soft tissues of the lungs or abdomen. The body has significant difficulty expelling the fibers, which can trigger more than a dozen health complications, including cancer.
It often takes decades, but asbestos fibers are proven to cause asbestosis, lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma. In total, these asbestos-related illnesses account for approximately 10,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
About 2,000 to 3,000 of these annual deaths — roughly one every 3.4 hours — are caused by mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of this cancer, which develops in the lining of the lungs. Although lung cancer has other contributing causes, pleural mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos.
While breathing asbestos is unlikely to cause any immediate harm, asbestosis and asbestos-related cancers often arise many years after the first exposure. This gap between exposure and the first appearance of symptoms, known as the latency period, can range between 10 and 50 years.
Because of the long latency period, people exposed to asbestos before 1980s government regulations may only now begin to notice pleural mesothelioma symptoms. The latency period also means that the peak in pleural mesothelioma cases won’t occur until decades after the peak in asbestos usage. For this reason, most projections estimate that the U.S. still has not experienced the highest annual rate of mesothelioma cases.
Most models estimate that the maximum number of annual pleural mesothelioma diagnoses will occur between 2015 and 2020. This estimate holds true for other areas of the world with a similar history of asbestos usage. For example, British researchers expect to see a national maximum in 2016 and Dutch researchers estimate a 2017 peak.
Asbestos use is not banned in the U.S., but it is strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government entities. Asbestos can only be used in products that have historically contained the mineral. In other words, no “new uses” are permitted. Additionally, these products can be made with asbestos only if there is no adequate substitute.
This has led to a steep decrease in nationwide use. In 1973, domestic consumption of asbestos was 803,000 metric tons. Consumption in 2005 was a fraction of that, totaling only 2,400 metric tons. The small amount that is still used annually goes into products that require fireproof and heat resistant qualities. Products which may still be made with asbestos include protective clothing, pipe insulation, brake linings and similar materials.
Other products historically known to contain asbestos include:
Individuals who work around asbestos must be adequately protected. Employers are required to disclose the presence of asbestos to workers and provide proper protective gear, such as air-purifying respirators, before any work that may disturb asbestos.
When maintenance or demolition work disturbs asbestos materials or they fall apart over time, the safest way to repair or remove the threat is to hire a trained and accredited asbestos professional. In most cases, hiring an abatement expert is required by law.
The government regulates proper procedures for asbestos abatement, including notifying the appropriate state agency before asbestos work, preventing asbestos from becoming airborne and disposing of the hazardous material properly. Choosing to perform an asbestos project yourself without following these procedures can result in costly fines and jail time.
It is important for abatement workers to follow all safety precautions such as sealing off the work area and keeping asbestos-containing materials wet to help prevent asbestos dust from entering the air. Before hiring someone to complete asbestos work, check with the Better Business Bureau, your local air pollution control board or a local worker safety agency to confirm that the inspectors and contractors are properly licensed. Also look for a history of work-related safety violations or lawsuits.
Individuals who continue to work with asbestos must be adequately protected. Employers must advise workers of the presence of asbestos and must provide proper protective gear such as air-purifying respirators. Further laws regulate proper asbestos abatement procedures, outlining how to prevent asbestos from becoming airborne and how to properly dispose of the hazardous material. These instructions note safety precautions such as keeping asbestos-containing materials wet so asbestos dust does not enter the air.
Despite both federal and state regulations on asbestos use and abatement, asbestos exposure continues to be an issue in the United States. Minimizing environmental exposure continues to be a struggle in areas with high concentrations of naturally occurring asbestos, such as El Dorado Hills, California and Libby, Montana.
Household exposure is also still an issue because so many construction products contain asbestos. This is especially true of houses built prior to the 1980s, when asbestos use was more common. Household products that may contain asbestos include insulation, cement, drywall, ceiling tiles, floor tiles and other construction items. These items generally pose no risk unless they are damaged or cut. Once an asbestos-containing material is damaged, asbestos fibers can enter the air and can be inhaled or ingested. It is important to avoid remodeling or demolition projects until a professional inspector confirms the absence of asbestos. If asbestos is found, proper abatement procedures should be followed to ensure the safety of everyone in the area.
Other types of exposure, namely from workplaces and environmental pollution, have declined thanks to the strict regulations in the past few decades. It is important to know if you’ve been exposed to asbestos or if you may be exposed to it in the future. If you have been exposed to asbestos, get medical treatment as soon as possible. If pleural mesothelioma develops, early detection is crucial for effective treatment.
If you think something in your home might contain asbestos, the EPA suggests you treat it as if it does and leave it alone. Asbestos-containing products in good condition generally pose no risk unless they are damaged. But once asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, asbestos fibers can enter the air and be inhaled or ingested.
Don’t begin a remodeling or demolition project until you are sure it won’t disturb asbestos. Unless a product is clearly labeled, there’s no way to tell if it contains asbestos just by looking at it. You may need to hire a professional inspector to collect samples. If a lab test confirms the presence of asbestos, proper abatement procedures should be followed to ensure the safety of everyone in the area.
If you know there are asbestos materials in your home, be sure to check them regularly for any signs of wear or water damage. Avoid damaging materials that may contain asbestos, and limit children and others from accessing potentially dangerous areas. During maintenance or renovation projects, avoid activities that may disturb concealed asbestos and cause harmful exposures, including cutting, sawing, sanding, drilling or scraping. If you find dust or debris that may contain asbestos, do not sweep it up or vacuum.
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