Asbestos was once considered a great product for a variety of reasons – it’s versatile, durable, flexible, and cheap
but it’s also a toxic mineral that can cause severe health problems, including mesothelioma cancer.
Exposure to asbestos is a risk factor for a number of health conditions, which range from chronic, manageable conditions to fatal ones. Understanding the risk of asbestos exposure first involves understanding how exposure occurs. There are two forms of asbestos fibers: amphibole, which are described by the American Cancer Society as “thin, rod-like fibers,” and serpentine, which are described as “curly and pliable”.
Most asbestos use in the United States was halted due to a 1989 ban issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is estimated that 27 million people were exposed to asbestos before this ban. Asbestos is still used in some products, although the risk of using these products must be clearly stated on a label.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the mesothelium and is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. Symptoms of mesothelioma include shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue and coughing up blood. The types of mesothelioma are: pleural mesothelioma, which affects the pleura; peritoneal mesothelioma ; pericardial mesothelioma; and testicular mesothelioma, affecting the tunica vaginalis. This disease is treated through chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, experimental therapies (such as immunotherapy) or some combination of various treatments. Mesothelioma is not considered curable and often leads to death within a year of the initial diagnosis.
The risks of asbestos were known for over sixty years before its use was largely banned in the United States. In the 1920′s, researchers first established the health risks of asbestos exposure. But asbestos continued to be widely used for another sixty years in both industries and in the production of household items such as certain adhesives and small appliances like coffee makers. There is ample evidence that the risk of asbestos exposure was widely known among industry leaders, including an industry group called the Asbestos Textile Institute. But industries failed to notify workers of these risks, or to provide adequate protection or safety equipment. As a result, generations of workers were exposed to asbestos and put at risk for developing lung cancer, mesothelioma and non-malignant respiratory conditions such as asbestosis and pleural effusions.
Most people are exposed to asbestos, in some form, during their lifetime. For most, the level of exposure is not sufficient to negatively impact health. But sometimes even a short-term exposure can later result in a respiratory condition. It is important for individuals to assess their exposure to asbestos, particularly if they, or a family member, worked in a high-risk industry. Individuals can work with a physician to monitor their health for symptoms of respiratory conditions.
Most Common Sources of Asbestos Exposure:
- Workplace exposure to people that work in industries that mine, make or use asbestos products and those living
near these industries, including:
- the construction industry (particularly building demolition and renovation activities),
- the manufacture of asbestos products (such as textiles, friction products, insulation, and other building materials), and
- during automotive brake and clutch repair work
- Deteriorating, damaged, or disturbed asbestos-containing products such as insulation, fireproofing, acoustical materials, and floor tiles.
Some of the most common types of products manufactured in the US containing asbestos fibers include:
- drywall and joint compound
- mud and texture coats
- vinyl floor tiles, sheeting, adhesives
- roofing tars, felts, siding, and shingles
- “transite” panels, siding, countertops, and pipes
- popcorn ceilings, also known as acoustic ceilings
- packing, a system for sealing a rotating shaft
- brake pads and shoes
- clutch plates
- stage curtains
- fire blankets
- interior fire doors
- fireproof clothing for firefighters
- thermal pipe insulation
- filters for removing fine particulates from chemicals, liquids, and wine
- dental cast linings
- HVAC flexible duct connectors
- drilling fluid additives
Additionally, asbestos lined and insulated hundreds of military vessels until the late 1970s.
Unfortunately, because asbestos was so widely used until that time, it is still in many of our products and buildings. The strategy many universities, companies, and institutions use to prevent asbestos exposure is maintenance. Additionally, the only asbestos products banned by the EPA affect flooring felt, rollboard, and certain paper goods.
That leaves hundreds if not thousands of asbestos products in schools and public buildings, leaving millions of U.S. citizens at risk every day.
Exposure that occurs outdoors due to the presence of naturally occurring asbestos or asbestos fibers that have been released into the air as a result of mining or a natural disaster is referred to as environmental asbestos exposure. The state of California is home to some of the largest naturally occurring deposits of asbestos, such as the Clear Creek Management Area and the El Dorado Hills community. In the state of Montana the small town Libby has been greatly affected by an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine that operated and processed ore until 1992.
In New York City when the World Trade Center towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, a total of 2,000 tons of asbestos were released into the surrounding area. Some of the first responders have even been diagnosed with and passed away from mesothelioma, which usually takes decades to develop following asbestos exposure. Another case of accidental environmental asbestos exposure took place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The costly hurricane damaged thousands of older asbestos-contaminated homes and raised many concerns about asbestos exposure during hurricane cleanup efforts.
Fiberglass insulation was invented in 1938 and is now the most commonly used type of insulation material. The safety of this material is also being called into question, as research shows that the composition of this material (asbestos and fiberglass are both silicate fibers) causes similar toxicity as asbestos.
Many companies that produced asbestos-cement products that were reinforced with asbestos fibers have developed products incorporating organic fibers. One such product was known as Eternit and another “Everite” now use “Nutec” fibers which consist of organic fibers, portland cement and silica. Cement-bonded wood fiber is another substitute. Stone fibers are used in gaskets and friction materials.
Another potential fiber is polybenzimidazole or PBI fiber. Polybenzimidazole fiber is a synthetic fiber with high melting point of 760 °C that also does not ignite. Because of its exceptional thermal and chemical stability, it is often used by fire departments and space agencies.
Asbestos alternatives for industrial use include sleeves, rope, tape, fabric, textiles and insulation batt materials made from fiberglass and silica.
Asbestos abatement or removal
For Asbestos Abatement Professionals — Find out how you can take training to become an asbestos abatement professional and learn about state asbestos accreditation programs.
Recycling and disposal
Asbestos can also be recycled by transforming it into harmless silicate glass. A process of thermal decomposition at 1000–1250 °C produces a mixture of non-hazardous silicate phases, and at temperatures above 1250 °C it produces silicate glass. Microwave thermal treatment can be used in an industrial manufacturing process to transform asbestos and asbestos-containing waste into porcelain stoneware tiles, porous single-fired wall tiles, and ceramic bricks.
So what’s the best way to prevent exposure?
About the Author (Author Profile)
Creator/Host of Go Green America TV
Jeff (Jf) Davis aka The Go Green Guy is from Maine
Moved to LA to follow his passion as an actor
these days he is still acting, lives in LA with his wife and two boys
an writes about Green Living for his website Go Green America TV
that will soon be a TV show!!