Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral found in the earth’s soil. The mineral was frequently used in the military, construction work and many other industries in the United States. for decades because of its resistance to heat. The U.S. no longer mines for asbestos after the dangerous effects of asbestos exposure were revealed to the public.
But do you know that asbestos is still part of many homes, office buildings, sports venues, schools, hospitals and more? Do you know what asbestos looks like? Do you know how to tell the difference between the six types of asbestos?
And do you know which cancers asbestos can cause?
Asbestos exposure is the only known cause for the rare cancer mesothelioma. It can also cause lung cancer, ovarian cancer and others.
The mineral becomes dangerous when fragments separate from the source, spreading asbestos dust into the air that we breathe. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they may become trapped in the lung cavity, causing painful breathing. They can also become lodged in the lining around the abdominal cavity.
The use of asbestos has declined rapidly since the 1990s, but the structures built with and materials made from it are likely to remain for decades. In recent years, there have been many projects and campaigns to eradicate asbestos from structures used by the public and ban the cancer-causing mineral in the United States.
Although large strides are being made toward erasing any traces of asbestos from the country, it’s important to know about the dangerous mineral and its many forms.
Asbestos falls into two mineral families: serpentine and amphibole. The serpentine asbestos group has only one subtype, while the amphibole group consists of several subtypes.
Serpentine is a name for a broad mineral group primarily including chrysotile, antigorite and lizardite. The serpentine group is generally known for its green color, patterned appearance, slick feel and ability to easily cut and shape. The distinct characteristics of serpentine minerals resemble a snake, hence the name serpentine.
Serpentine fibers are long, curly and layered with a high resistance to heat and fire – making it a valuable ingredient in many materials often used in construction. Minerals of the serpentine family have been used architecturally for thousands of years. The mineral is softer than granite but harder than marble. The low hardness limits the appropriate placement of serpentine minerals to places not as prone to wear and tear such as facing stone, wall tiles, mantles and window sills.
Antigorite and lizardite are nontoxic serpentine minerals and are typically used to form gemstones or stone-like features. Of the three mineral subtypes in the serpentine family, chrysotile is the only asbestos subtype – and the most common form of asbestos still used in the U.S. today.
The use of chrysotile asbestos peaked in the 20th century as industrialization swept across the United States and the world. As a key component of many common materials, chrysotile asbestos once could be found in almost every building and vehicle in the United States. The use of chrysotile asbestos in common materials has significantly declined since the health and safety hazards of exposure were publicized.
Chrysotile asbestos, sometimes referred to as “white asbestos,” was valued for its ability to resist fire and heat, making it impossible to burn. The mineral – used for its insulating properties – was often included in materials used to manufacture car gaskets, brake pads and linings, cement, and roof shingles.
As chrysotile asbestos is the most common form of the mineral used throughout the U.S., it has been named the leading cause for most mesothelioma cases. Incorporating chrysotile asbestos into such familiar structures and products puts many Americans at risk – especially those in certain occupations. Construction workers and automobile technicians are at high risk for chrysotile asbestos exposure, which could lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Amphibole refers to a group of usually dark black or brown minerals occurring in metamorphic rocks. Amphibole minerals are essential elements in a variety of volcanic igneous rocks drastically ranging in appearance and composition. The term “amphibole” – derived from the Greek word “amphibolos”, meaning ambiguous – was coined to illustrate the diversity of the mineral group.
The broad mineral group consists of several mineral subtypes with colors ranging from colorless to white, green, brown, black, blue or lavender. Amphibole fibers are short, straight, sharp and needle-like and have been found in cement, cosmetic talc products, insulation, electrical wiring, paint and sealants.
Amphibole asbestos subtypes include amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite. These subtypes are not as frequently used as the serpentine subtype, chrysotile, but are still incorporated into common materials.
Amosite asbestos – commonly called “brown asbestos” – is one of the most dangerous asbestos subtypes. Amosite is composed of sharp, brittle and needle-like fibers. The mineral’s fragile properties make it easy to crumble and release harmful asbestos dust into the air. As the asbestos dust makes its way through the air, the needle-like asbestos fibers blend in with other air particles and can be inhaled or swallowed unknowingly. The weak and needle-like structure of amosite gives it the title of most hazardous asbestos.
The amosite form of asbestos accounts for 5% of asbestos materials used in the U.S. to construct buildings, making it the second most commonly used type of asbestos after chrysotile. Amosite was added to many materials and tools used to build structures, such as cement, chemical insulation, electrical insulation, fire protection, gaskets, insulation boards, plumbing insulation, roof shingles, thermal insulation, tiles and more.
Crocidolite asbestos – often referred to as “blue asbestos” – is among the most hazardous types of asbestos. The amphibole mineral is composed of extremely fine and sharp fibers. The size and sharpness of the crocidolite fibers make it very easy to inhale the toxic fibers, potentially leading to a fatal diagnosis of mesothelioma. Experts suggest this type of asbestos may be responsible for more mesothelioma cases than originally thought.
Crocidolite was not incorporated into as many materials as other subtypes because the mineral was far less heat resistant. The mineral was sometimes detected in specific formulas of cement, some types of tiles, and insulation components.
Tremolite asbestos – like other types in the amphibole family – can be easily inhaled or swallowed, infecting the lungs or abdominal cavity with its sharp needle-like fibers. Tremolite is known for its high resistance to heat and tends to vary in its appearance from a dark green or a milky white color. The mineral’s toxic strands can be woven into fabric made to manufacture construction materials.
Traces of tremolite have been identified in common materials and structures around the United States. The mineral has been found in paints, sealants, insulation, roofing and plumbing materials. More recently, the tremolite asbestos has been linked to cosmetic talc products – specifically, Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder. The revelation of the dangerous mineral;s presence in Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder has caused the healthcare conglomerate to face a spiral of lawsuits claiming the company is responsible for thousands of asbestos-related diseases.
Actinolite asbestos is usually a dark green mineral made of sharp, needle-like fibers. The mineral is often composed of various elements, including calcium, magnesium and iron.
Actinolite’s dangerous fibers can be released into the air by any disturbance to the material, infecting the air we breathe. The actinolite form of asbestos was previously used in products and materials such as cement, insulation, paints, sealants and drywall.
Anthophyllite is one of the rarer forms of asbestos. It was not used as frequently in consumer products as the other asbestos subtypes. Similar to other amphibole minerals, anthophyllite is composed of long, needle-like fibers that can be inhaled or ingested easily, infecting the lungs or abdominal cavity.
The asbestos subtype’s appearance ranges from brown to yellowish and is composed primarily of magnesium and iron. Because anthophyllite was not used as often as other asbestos, it cannot be found as frequently as the others in construction products. Anthophyllite has been identified in some cement and insulation materials.
Including any of the asbestos subtypes in common household products and materials risks the health and safety of Americans. Asbestos is a hazard for anyone – no matter if you worked directly with the mineral in a factory or mine, or you were exposed to the toxic mineral through in your home’s popcorn ceiling. Learning about the many forms of asbestos and the materials the mineral could be in is extremely important to keeping you and your family safe.
If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos and are experiencing symptoms related to mesothelioma, or if you were already diagnosed with mesothelioma, contact one of our experienced patient advocates or a knowledgeable mesothelioma lawyer.
Sources & Author
Serpentine. Geology.com. Retrieved from: https://geology.com/minerals/serpentine.shtml. Accessed: 06/06/2022.
Amphibole. Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/science/amphibole, Accessed: 06/07/2022.
Types of Asbestos That Can Cause Asbestos Disease. Penn Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.pennmedicine.org/cancer/types-of-cancer/mesothelioma/asbestos-cancer/types-of-asbestos. Accessed: 06/08/2022.
Sources & Author