At its peak, chrysotile asbestos composed 99% of the world asbestos production. Traces of the hazardous mineral can be detected in the most common materials from cement to rubber – even certain plastics. The overpowering presence of the toxic mineral puts countless people at risk of asbestos exposure.
Chrysotile asbestos was heavily used throughout the U.S. for decades but rapidly declined once the dangerous effects of asbestos exposure were revealed: a deadly diagnosis of mesothelioma – a rare cancer of the lungs or abdominal cavity that develops as a direct result of asbestos exposure.
Today, it is rare to find chrysotile asbestos – or any form of the mineral – in modern materials or structures; however, it’s important to note that this significant change will not eliminate mesothelioma right away.
Delayed Development of Mesothelioma
Because chrysotile asbestos was so widely used, it’s the cause of the majority of mesothelioma diagnoses. Asbestos causes mesothelioma when dust – containing lethal fibers of the mineral – is inhaled (through the nose) or ingested (through the mouth). The microscopic asbestos fibers often become lodged in the chest or abdominal cavity. While someone may have no idea they’ve ingested toxic asbestos particles, the microscopic fibers make their way to the chest or abdomen without making their presence known for decades.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the lungs or abdominal cavity and can remain dormant for up to 70 years after asbestos fibers enter your body. Most patients start experiencing symptoms 20-50 years after asbestos exposure. Common mesothelioma symptoms include shortness of breath, chest or abdominal pain, persistent coughing, fluid buildup in the lungs or abdomen, weight loss, fatigue and more. Symptoms are similar to pneumonia, asthma and the flu but can turn far more severe.
What Is Chrysotile Asbestos?
Asbestos is an ancient mineral valued for its heat-resistant and durable properties. The mineral hit the market in the 19th century by the hands of an Italian mine, rapidly making its way around the world. During the 20th century, and especially around the time of World War II, the import and use of asbestos peaked as industrial America expanded, neglecting to learn the facts about the new mineral. As scientists and regulatory agencies began to study asbestos, it was revealed that the durable mineral was much more complex and dangerous.
Asbestos falls into two mineral families: amphibole and serpentine, which are further sectioned into subtypes. Amphibole asbestos minerals make up the majority of asbestos subtypes, while there is only one known asbestos serpentine subtype: chrysotile asbestos.
The chrysotile form of asbestos is a hydrous magnesium silicate with the chemical composition of Mg₃Si₂O₅(OH)₄. With its whitish color and fragile structure, the mineral is easy to separate into long, flexible fibers. This makes it a perfect ingredient for many materials like fabrics, paper, car parts, building materials and thick theater curtains.
The structure and composition was not the only complicated part about asbestos – mining for the mineral was very unsafe. Asbestos mining usually took place in an open area similar to a valley where mine workers extracted large chunks of serpentine looking like old wood. The asbestos fibers were freed from the serpentine block by crushing and then blowing the chrysotile strands away from the crushed serpentine. The loose chrysotile then became a fluffy fiber easy to include in materials.
Safety hazards in the mining process of chrysotile asbestos are extremely prevalent. At the time, the dangers of the mineral were still unknown – meaning there were little to no safety protocols in place to protect workers from asbestos exposure. Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that no amount of exposure to asbestos is safe.
Mining and Importing Chrysotile Asbestos
Asbestos mines could be found all over the world with more than 50 in the United States and the most famous vermiculite mine being in Libby, Montana.
As asbestos risks became known, U.S. mines began shutting down – increasing imports from other countries. The United States predominantly received its asbestos from Brazil between 2006 and 2014, importing more than 8 million pounds of asbestos. Large portions of imported asbestos were routed to specific port cities: New Orleans, LA received more than 5 million pounds of asbestos; Houston, TX received more than 2 million pounds and Newark, NJ received nearly 250,000 pounds.
Within the last decade, the amount of U.S. imported asbestos has fluctuated greatly:
- 2013: 775 metric tons
- 2014: 406 metric tons
- 2015: 325 metric tons
- 2016: 747 metric tons
- 2017: 332 metric tons
- 2018: 681 metric tons
- 2019: 172 metric tons
- 2020: 200 metric tons
- 2021: 100 metric tons
- 2022 (so far): 114 metric tons
As regulatory agencies continue to monitor the presence of asbestos in our country, the continual fluctuation of asbestos imports is something to keep an eye on.
The Rise, Fall and Continued Relevance of Chrysotile Asbestos
Chrysotile asbestos was the most popular form of the hazardous mineral used in nearly every structure and occupation throughout the 1900s. It’s important to protect the occupations likely to encounter chrysotile and any form of asbestos by educating the public on the risks and effects. Incorporating the mineral in so many materials put thousands of people at risk of developing mesothelioma.
Thankfully, asbestos is heavily regulated today, reducing the risk of everyday asbestos exposure. Most industries do not use asbestos due to the likelihood of causing cancer for workers and consumers. They also stopped using chrysotile asbestos due to lawsuits coming against the companies that used the mineral.
Since becoming aware of the lethal effects of asbestos, regulatory agencies have implemented rules prohibiting mining and limiting use of chrysotile asbestos. More recently, the EPA proposed a ban on importing chrysotile asbestos.
Chrysotile Asbestos at Work
This subtype of asbestos is popular among certain occupations because its heat-resistant properties make it the perfect ingredient for construction materials (insulation, roof shingles, floor tiles, electrical wiring, ovens and more) and automobile parts (brakes, gaskets and more).
Construction work is one of the highest at-risk occupations for asbestos exposure. Many forms of asbestos were used in countless construction materials throughout a vast majority of U.S. structures built during the 20th century. The industry was attracted to all forms of the mineral for its durability and resistance to heat.
Traces of chrysotile asbestos can be identified in nearly 95% of buildings in the United States – mostly in roof shingles and cement. Asbestos was intentionally included in buildings to protect from fire damage and degradation.
Chrysotile asbestos has also been linked to some automobile parts. Most commonly, brake pads and linings contain the hazardous mineral – putting mechanics and basically anyone who works on vehicles at risk.
When the operator of a vehicle applies pressure to the brakes, the pressure causes friction between the brake pads creating a chrysotile asbestos dust in the wheel well. It’s nearly impossible to identify asbestos dust on brakes without specific testing, so the EPA states that mechanics should assume every vehicle is contaminated with asbestos.
Asbestos in Outdated Materials
The popularity of chrysotile asbestos is nowhere near what it used to be, so it’s uncommon to find the dangerous mineral in modern structures. However, legacy asbestos – asbestos sealed within a structure built during the 20th century – still remains. Due to the high use of the mineral in the past, it’s possible to run into chrysotile asbestos when remodeling an old home, demolishing an old building, or even replacing old brake pads on automobiles.
The end of asbestos is near, but it could still lurk in buildings from the past.
Protecting workers in occupations like construction and automobile repair from chrysotile asbestos exposure will save them from developing the deadly disease mesothelioma. Knowing the dangers of the mineral and where it may be is part of the battle – preventing the development of mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and other deadly diseases is the war.
Sources & Author
The hazards of chrysotile asbestos: a critical review. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10441898/. Accessed: 05/27/2022.
Final Risk Evaluation for Asbestos. Part 1: Chrysotile Asbestos. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/final-risk-evaluation-asbestos-part-1-chrysotile. Accessed: 05/28/2022.
The health risk of chrysotile asbestos. Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine. Retrieved from: https://journals.lww.com/co-pulmonarymedicine/Abstract/2014/07000/The_health_risk_of_chrysotile_asbestos.10.aspx. Accessed: 06/01/2022
Asbestos mineral. Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/science/asbestos-mineral. Accessed: 0/06/2022.
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