What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a fiber-like mineral used as insulation in a wide variety of items and structures. Held to high acclaim during the Industrial Revolution due to its fireproof quality, this insulating material could be found in everything from ceilings to toasters. Not until the early 20th century did medical studies begin to associate asbestos exposure with lethal cancers such as mesothelioma.

Still in frequent use, despite known risks
However, manufacturers and companies continued to use asbestos often despite knowing that it imposed a risk of serious sickness on workers. Employers generally knew of the risk, but the workers did not. Workers heavily exposed to asbestos in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are just now receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Industries started phasing out the use of asbestos in the 1970s, but the cancer-causing agent is still frequently used today, even though it may cause workers to develop mesothelioma symptoms.

The microscopic bundles of fiber that make up asbestos can be distributed through the air and inhaled by those working around it. This asbestos exposure can cause more than just mesothelioma. Asbestos can lead to asbestosis, a lung disease caused when asbestos fibers are trapped in lung tissue. When the body releases an acid to break up the fibers, the acid fails to damage the resistant asbestos and instead scars the lung tissue over a period of 25 to 40 years.

In the United States, 10,000 people die each year after being diagnosed with mesothelioma or another disease caused by asbestos exposure. When left alone or put under frequent surveillance, the hazards of asbestos can be minimized. However, workers have faced problems with asbestos because once the asbestos-containing material is disturbed; the fibers become airborne and put those working in the area at greater risk.

Asbestos-containing products
If an asbestos-containing material can be crumpled under hand pressure (in other words, it is “friable”) it is more likely to release fibers into the air. Fluffy spray-applied asbestos fireproofing material, for example, is generally considered friable. Non-friable materials, such as vinyl asbestos floor tile, can release fibers when sanded, sawed or otherwise aggressively disturbed.

Asbestos-containing materials, such as cement pipes, can release asbestos fibers into the air if broken, cut or crushed when a building is demolished, renovated, constructed or repaired. As many as 3,000 different types of commercial products may have contained asbestos.

Find out more about the epidemic of asbestos diseases.

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