Asbestos is a mineral that is naturally strong and durable — but it is also very dangerous. Through much of the 20th century, asbestos was used to make buildings, ships, cement, and many other materials. However, asbestos was soon linked to serious health issues like mesothelioma. Asbestos companies hid the truth from workers and consumers to make a profit.
between 1979-2001 from diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, and other types of cancer.
The Basics of Asbestos
For the last several decades, dozens of studies, data, and reports have linked asbestos to health issues in humans. This includes different forms of deadly cancer. But what is asbestos and why is it dangerous?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is incredibly light and durable. It is made out of microscopic fibers that bundle together. These fibers make asbestos resistant to heat, electricity, and water damage. These properties made asbestos extremely appealing for use in construction materials and other consumer products.
Asbestos is often found in rock deposits throughout the world. Because it is so abundant and light, it can be mined at a very low cost. Once it is mined, asbestos can be developed into valuable products for different industries. Asbestos-containing products are used in construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing industries throughout the world.
Though asbestos has many good properties and was once hailed as a “miracle mineral,” it has also been linked to diseases like mesothelioma. The sad reality is asbestos companies knew that their products could cause cancer. However, they did nothing to warn workers or consumers. Decades later, people who were exposed to asbestos are now developing cancer and other health issues.
As a result, the U.S. government ordered asbestos companies to establish trust funds for asbestos victims. For several decades, they have also encouraged manufacturers not to use asbestos-based products, though asbestos remains legal for some uses to this day.
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Use of asbestos dates back to Ancient Egypt. In modern history, asbestos has been used for over 100 years for a variety of reasons. Starting in the late 1800s, it was commercially mined. By the 1930s, asbestos had become a key material for the construction and shipbuilding industries. Due to its number of seemingly useful applications, it would be widely used until the 1980s.
Properties of asbestos include:
- Abundance: Asbestos is found around the world, including countries such as South Africa, Canada, China, and the U.S. Earthly abundance makes asbestos cheap to mine and sell. Given its uses and prevalence, asbestos became a billion-dollar industry.
- Durability: Early on, asbestos-containing products were hailed for their strength and ability to resist heat, electricity, and flame. Asbestos fibers interlock and become nearly impossible to destroy. However, because these microscopic fibers are so tough, they won’t easily leave your body if breathed in or swallowed.
- Fibrous: Asbestos is made up of thousands of tiny fibers. These fibers make asbestos lightweight. While this makes asbestos helpful for building and insulation, it can also cause problems. If asbestos is disturbed, its fibers can dislodge and become airborne, making the fibers easy for people to ingest or inhale.
- Insulation: Asbestos is resistant to fire, electricity, and water. It also is a natural soundproofing material. This makes it useful as an insulator for electrical wires, pipes, and walls, among other things.
Types of Asbestos
Currently, researchers have identified 6 types of asbestos, all of which are now known to be dangerous. They are broken up into 2 mineral families: the amphibole and the serpentine.
The 6 types of asbestos are:
- Actinolite: Actinolite asbestos was used in drywall, paint, and other materials. In its natural state, it exists in a few different colors such as green, gray, and black.
- Amosite: Also known as “brown asbestos,” amosite asbestos was frequently used to make buildings. It is the second-most commonly used type of asbestos in the U.S.
- Anthophyllite: Anthophyllite asbestos is the rarest form of the mineral. As a result, it was only used occasionally in products like cement.
- Chrysotile: Chrysotile asbestos is the most common form of the mineral. It is made up of long, curly fibers. It is also known as “white asbestos.”
- Crocidolite: Crocidolite was used in products like cement and insulators. However, it isn’t as heat-resistant as other asbestos formations. It is also known as “blue asbestos.”
- Tremolite: Tremolite was found in consumer products like paint and talcum powder. It was known for its heat-resistant properties. Today, tremolite is no longer mined.
These types fall under 2 mineral families: the amphibole and the serpentine. Only chrysotile asbestos belongs to the serpentine family. All the rest belong to the amphibole family.
Amosite and crocidolite asbestos are considered to be more dangerous than the other types of asbestos. The fibers in these types are fine, sharp, and brittle. Thus, they easily become airborne when disturbed. Crocidolite is the most dangerous, but fortunately, it was not used often.
Illness and Asbestos
If you or someone you love has been exposed to asbestos, they are at risk of terminal illness later in life. When asbestos fibers enter the body, they make their way to major organs like the lungs, heart, and chest cavity.
Since asbestos fibers cannot be broken down, they slowly irritate the affected areas. Long-term irritation leads to scarring, fluid buildup, and the development of cancerous tumors.
After decades of damage, asbestos can cause serious diseases such as:
- Asbestosis: Asbestosis occurs when asbestos fibers get stuck in the lungs. As scar tissue and fluids build up in the lung, it gets stiffer. This makes it hard for the affected person to breathe. Symptoms of asbestosis include a constant cough and shortness of breath.
- Lung Cancer: Asbestos-related lung cancer is rare, but can also occur as a result of exposure to asbestos. Unlike mesothelioma, lung cancer develops in the lung itself. Lung cancer symptoms are marked by a bloody cough, chest pain, and sudden weight loss.
- Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer. It occurs when asbestos fibers get stuck in the linings of lungs, abdomen, or heart. As the damage worsens, cells begin to mutate and form cancerous tumors. Symptoms of mesothelioma vary depending on where it develops.
There are no cures for any asbestos-related disease. However, doctors can help to manage them and extend a patient’s life if they are caught in their early stages.
While asbestosis is dangerous, mesothelioma presents more serious challenges. The symptoms of mesothelioma can often seem vague at first, so many people are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread to other areas in the body. This can greatly reduce a person’s survival time.
Occupations That Used Asbestos
The industries that used asbestos expanded as companies found new uses for the mineral. Huge industries developed around those who mined, refined, and sold asbestos to construction companies. However, these companies also knew that asbestos fibers could cause long-term health problems.
Though those in charge of asbestos companies knew the risks, they did not tell the public or the U.S. government. It was not until the late 1970s that the dangers of asbestos became well known. By that point, thousands of people had already been exposed to asbestos.
Given the wide use of asbestos across dozens of occupations, thousands of people were needlessly put at risk.
Occupations and industries that exposed people to asbestos include:
- Aerospace: Aircraft mechanics were exposed through asbestos contained in brakes, brake linings, seating gaskets, and insulation.
- Automotive: Asbestos was used in auto parts subject to friction such as brakes, clutches, and gaskets.
- Construction: Construction workers were exposed because asbestos was used in thousands of construction materials. Certain types of cement, roofing, plaster, wallboard, paint, and other products used asbestos as a main ingredient.
- Homemaking: The homes of asbestos workers may have been hotbeds for exposure, too. Wives of asbestos workers may have been exposed to the material from washing the dusty clothing of their husbands. Children who hugged their fathers upon returning from work were also exposed to asbestos.
- Manufacturing: Workers in plants where asbestos products were created are at risk for mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other health problems. This includes cement plants, steel mills, textile mills, and many other workplaces.
- Metal Working: In the metal industry, protective clothing and work areas often used asbestos due to its heat and fire resistant properties.
- Military: Military veterans are one of the largest groups affected by asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used extensively in shipbuilding from World War II until the late 1970s. It was also used in vehicles and military bases.
- Railroad: Asbestos was used to insulate locomotives. It was also used in brake and clutch linings.
- Shipbuilding: Insulation for certain areas of ships, including boilers, incinerators, hot water pipes, and steam pipes, was made up of asbestos. It was also used to soundproof rooms and protect engine rooms from heat.
Asbestos Exposure Sites
Even if you did not work directly in the asbestos industry, you could still be at risk. For example, some children and young adults have been diagnosed with mesothelioma in rare cases. Obviously, they did not work in an asbestos trade for decades. They could have been exposed if their houses or schools were made with asbestos-containing products.
Asbestos exposure sites that put individuals at risk include:
- Boiler rooms
- Construction sites
- Garages/auto repair sites
- Home renovation sites
- Older schools and homes built before the 1980s
- Power companies
- Utility companies
Due to the widespread use of asbestos, there are many other potential exposure sites that are not widely known. An asbestos attorney can help determine where you may have been exposed.
Asbestos Exposure Help
If you or someone you love was exposed to asbestos and now has concerning symptoms, don’t wait. See a doctor immediately and tell them about your asbestos history. They can determine if your symptoms are due to an asbestos-related disease.
Early diagnosis and the resulting treatments are the best way to protect yourself from fatal diseases caused by asbestos.
You can also seek legal help from an asbestos law firm. Legal action is very important. By filing an asbestos claim, you can get access to funds that can pay for your medical treatments.
Remember, if you worked for a company that used asbestos, they may be responsible if you got sick.
Sometimes, veterans are concerned that if they file a lawsuit, they may be taking action against the military. Fortunately, this is not true. Asbestos lawsuits are filed against the companies responsible for making asbestos-containing products. No branch of the military will be sued. Additionally, U.S. veterans may be entitled to disability through the VA.