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Asbestos: History, Types, and Health Risks of Mesothelioma

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Its popularity in 20th-century American commercialism led to thousands of deaths.

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Written by Jenna Campagna, RN

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Fact Checked

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Important Facts About Asbestos

  • Asbestos is a mineral found in the earth’s soil. It can protect objects from heat and fire.
  • Asbestos was used in construction, insulation and other industries for decades, up until the 1980s.
  • It’s the only known cause of mesothelioma but only becomes dangerous when fragments separate from the main source.
  • The United States no longer mines for asbestos but still imports the substance for a few industrial uses.
  • People at risk of exposure include construction worker, automobile repair workers, electricians, firefighters and school teachers.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in soil. It has tiny fibers, or strands, that stick and weave together. Asbestos is usually located in soil or attached to rocks. Asbestos fibers look like fragments of cloth.

Humans began using asbestos more than 5,000 years ago. Records depict ancient Egyptians blaming asbestos for a worker’s illness. Only in the last 40-50 years did the general public learn that asbestos was a health hazard.

The use of asbestos in the United States started during the 19th century. It spiked during World War II as industrial production increased. The use of asbestos reached a peak in the 1970s, which is around when scientists began alerting the public to the health risks caused by asbestos exposure.

What Was Asbestos Used for?

Prior to the last couple decades in the 20th century, asbestos was a sacred part of industrial and commercial America. It’s cheap to purchase, remains durable for years, and can resist fire and heat damage.

Some often-discussed mesothelioma risk factors are still being researched. They include:

  • Office and government buildings
  • Military vehicles and aircraft
  • Automobiles
  • Homes
  • Entertainment venues
  • Schools

Asbestos can be found in many construction materials, such as spray-on insulation and roofing tiles. It’s also found around electrical wiring, switch boards and panels, automobile brakes, paint, floorboards, siding and more. This is why occupational exposure to asbestos is linked to the rise of mesothelioma cases.

Asbestos was a regular building component in the United States military. The substance is part of most, if not all, naval ships built between the 1930s and 1980s. The military’s use of asbestos is why many veterans develop mesothelioma.

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Find out where you may have been exposed to asbestos

A nation wide list of sites where you or a loved one may have come in contact with asbestos.

Types of Asbestos

Asbestos falls into two mineral families: serpentine and amphibole. There is one type of serpentine asbestos and five types of amphibole asbestos.

Serpentine Asbestos vs. Amphibole Asbestos

Serpentine fibers are long, curly and layered. The only known type is chrysotile. According to the Penn Medicine website, “Chrysotile asbestos is the cause of most cases of mesothelioma.”

Serpentine asbestos can be found in:

  • Asphalt
  • Automobile brake linings and brake pads
  • Cement
  • Gaskets
  • Joint compound/drywall mud
  • Plastics
  • Roofing materials
  • Rubber
  • Textiles

Amphibole fibers are short, straight and sharp, similar to a needle or pin. They’re structured in a chain-like formation. According to Penn Medicine, amphibole asbestos is easy to inhale.

Amphibole asbestos can be found in:

  • Cement
  • Insulation
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Cement piping
  • Gaskets
  • Roofing
  • Fire-protection components

According to an article by Mineral Direct, most hazardous fibers are shorter in length because they can travel easily through your body. This is why amphibole asbestos can be harmful. However, both types of asbestos can be dangerous.

Asbestos Subtypes

There are six different subtypes of asbestos used in products: tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. The two used most often are chrysotile and amosite. These asbestos subtypes can be found in construction materials and automobile parts.

Chrysotile

Chrysotile Icon
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Called "white asbestos"

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Used in around 95% of buildings in the United States

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Cherished for heat-resistant properties

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Often woven together into a fabric-like shape

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Found in car gaskets, brake pads and linings, cement and roof shingles

Amosite

Amosite Icon
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Called "brown asbestos"

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Used in 5% of buildings in the United States

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Sharp, needle-like fibers that can easily crumble and loosen

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Dangerous because it's easy to crumble and inhale

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Used for ceiling tiles, cement, insulation, electrical wiring and gaskets

Crocidolite

Crocidolite Icon
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Called "blue asbestos"

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Considered most dangerous type of asbestos

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Very sharp fibers that you can inhale easily

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Used in cement, tiles and insulation components

Tremolite

Tremolite Icon
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Dark green or milky white color

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Sharp and needle-like fibers

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Found mixed with talc and vermiculite

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Previously used in paint, sealants and more, now is a concern for talc cosmetics

Actinolite

Actinolite Icon
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Dark color

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Needle-like fibers

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Mix with calcium, iron and magnesium

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Used in cement, paint, drywall and sealants

Anthophyllite

Anthophyllite Icon
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Yellow-brown color mixture

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Sharp, needle-like fibers

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Includes magnesium and iron

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Not used often in commercial or industrial settings

Where Is Asbestos Found?

You can find asbestos in homes, schools, offices, automobiles and other vehicles and buildings. Despite the significant reduction in use, asbestos remains dangerous due to its presence in deteriorating buildings.

Even though use of asbestos in new construction has reduced dramatically, the United States imported around 100 metric tons in 2019. The amount rose — nearly doubled — in 2020. The following are home, automobile or office building components that may have asbestos:

  • Boilers
  • Cement pipes
  • Clutches and brakes
  • Electrical wires
  • Corrosive chemical containers
  • Electric motor parts
  • Heat-protective pads
  • Covering for pipes
  • Ovens, toasters and other appliances
  • Roof shingles and tiles
  • Sealants and coatings, such as for paint
  • Insulation
  • Textiles (including curtains)

Mining and Importing Asbestos

Mining for asbestos in the United States started in the late 1800s. It continued the entirety of the 20th century. Mining occurred to meet high industrial demands for the mineral.

Today the U.S. solely imports asbestos for just a few industrial uses, notably to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide (chlor-alkali).

Asbestos mining involved an open-pit (an open area similar to a valley) method. When asbestos is first extracted, it looks like old wood. It is then turned into a fluffy fiber. The refined asbestos is added to other materials, like cement or insulation.

Mining of asbestos in the United States ended in 2002 when a chrysotile deposit in California closed. The U.S. still imports it, and in 2018 the country brought in 750 metric tons:

2014

406 metric tons

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2015

325 metric tons

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2016

747 metric tons

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2017

332 metric tons

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From 2006-2014, the U.S. imported more than 8 million pounds of asbestos. Most of the asbestos came from Brazil.

From 2006-2014, the port bringing in the largest amount of asbestos was New Orleans, Louisiana. The following ports in the United States are known for receiving large shipments of asbestos:

New Orleans, LA

Amount of Asbestos

5,249,103 lbs

Shipments

40

New Orleans, LA

Amount of Asbestos

5,249,103 lbs

Shipments

40

Houston, TX

Amount of Asbestos

2,375,254 lbs

Shipments

4240

Houston, TX

Amount of Asbestos

2,375,254 lbs

Shipments

4240

Newark, NJ

Amount of Asbestos

248,280 lbs

Shipments

7

Newark, NJ

Amount of Asbestos

248,280 lbs

Shipments

7

Long Beach, CA

Amount of Asbestos

149,853 lbs

Shipments

3

Long Beach, CA

Amount of Asbestos

149,853 lbs

Shipments

3

Jacksonville, FL

Amount of Asbestos

57,878 lbs

Shipments

3

Jacksonville, FL

Amount of Asbestos

57,878 lbs

Shipments

3

Mobile, AL

Amount of Asbestos

56,438 lbs

Shipments

2

Mobile, AL

Amount of Asbestos

56,438 lbs

Shipments

2

Norfolk, VA

Amount of Asbestos

28,219

Shipments

1

Norfolk, VA

Amount of Asbestos

28,219

Shipments

1

Where in the United States Was Asbestos Mined?

The most famous asbestos mine was the vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. The mine included amphibole asbestos. It shut down in 1990 and is responsible for many mesothelioma cases.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists 27 processing sites for Libby’s vermiculite mine. One of them is Libby, and the other 26 locations are:

Asbestos was once mined in nearly half of the states in the country. The U.S. Department of Interior reported 27 former asbestos mines in North Carolina and 17 in Georgia. Other states are:

Who Faces the Highest Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

People who worked directly with asbestos materials have the highest risk of developing asbestos-related cancers. Most mesothelioma cases are due to occupational asbestos exposure. Construction workers (such as carpenters), insulation workers, electricians, pipefitters and others:

  • Handled asbestos products directly
  • Applied asbestos to building components
  • Were exposed to asbestos when fixing or repairing a building

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “In the United States, an estimated 27 million workers were exposed to aerosolized asbestos fibers between 1940 and 1979.”

Occupational exposure isn’t in the past, either. Workers are still subjected to asbestos when working on 20th century buildings. Occupational exposure occurs during:

  • Repairs
  • Renovations
  • Asbestos removal
  • Maintenance

Based on research from the American Thoracic Society, as of today, “1.3 million construction workers as well as workers in building and equipment maintenance” are exposed to asbestos.

Is Asbestos Banned in the United States?

More than 60 countries have banned asbestos, but the U.S. isn’t one of them. Currently, the Ban Asbestos Now Act is in both the House of Representatives and Senate. It would outlaw all commercial mining, production and sale of asbestos within one year of passage. Activists are hopeful for its passing, but it remains just a bill with promise.

In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to ban asbestos. Unfortunately, the result was banning only new uses of the carcinogen. Uses of asbestos prior to 1989 remained legal.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commision in the 1970s banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching and gas fireplaces. Around this same time, asbestos was removed from electric hair dryers.

In the early 2000s, crayon manufacturers refined their recipes when asbestos was discovered in their crayons. During this timespan, the EPA also expressed concern about asbestos contamination in gardening products containing vermiculite. Recently, traces of asbestos have been found in talc cosmetic products (baby powder, makeup and blush).

In April 2019, the EPA established new regulations for asbestos. The agency must approve any company’s use on a case-by-case basis rather than listing specific uses that are permitted and those that are banned. Critics of the EPA’s new rules say the agency could be lenient, allowing for previously banned implementations of the substance.

How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma

When fibers are stuck together and form a large piece of asbestos, they’re harmless. However, they’re flaky and sensitive. The slightest touch or breath from a person can loosen one or many of these fibers, which is how asbestos can cause cancer.

A single strand’s weightless composition allows wayward fibers to float in the air, and they are too small for people to detect without a microscope. Anyone near loose, airborne asbestos fibers can inhale or swallow them without even realizing.

The fibers can travel through the body and reach the lung cavity or the abdominal cavity. The lung cavity is protected by a thin layer of tissue called the pleura. The abdominal cavity includes a similar layer, called the peritoneum.

When asbestos fibers reach either of these two layers, it can aggravate mesothelial cells by lodging into the tissue lining with its sharp edges. This irritation causes the cells to change genetically, which leads to mutation and eventually the cancer known as mesothelioma.

If you have this disease, we can provide more information and evidence about how asbestos is the cause. Our free Complete Mesothelioma Guide book is full of data and statistics regarding asbestos, its use in the United States, and what you can do if you have mesothelioma.

Common Questions About Asbestos

What is asbestos and how does it cause cancer?

Asbestos is a mineral that naturally forms beneath the earth’s surface. It’s a delicate substance made up of tiny fibers appearing like woven cloth. Asbestos can break apart, making it easy to inhale or swallow. Each fiber is sharp enough to irritate and damage tissue cells, which is how asbestos causes cancer.

What is asbestos used for?

During most of the 20th century, many industries implemented asbestos into products to protect from fires or overheating. Construction, insulation and electrical work involved coating wires, tiles, wallboards and pipes with asbestos mixtures. Today, asbestos is used in the chlor-alkali industry, which produces the chemicals chlorine and sodium hydroxide.

Is asbestos illegal in the United States?

Asbestos is not illegal in the United States, despite efforts from activist groups to outlaw the substance. The Environmental Protection Agency has loose regulations regarding which companies can use asbestos, but most have found alternatives due to mounting legal claims against manufacturers. Asbestos is illegal in more than 60 countries.

How soon should I see a doctor after being exposed to asbestos?

See a doctor if you notice any symptoms of asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma. These signs include difficulty breathing, chest pain, fluid buildup near your lungs or stomach, and weight loss. Most people remain healthy after exposure to asbestos. It’s important to be aware of the diseases caused by asbestos and their symptoms.

Can I get compensated if I was exposed to asbestos?

Compensation is available if you developed an asbestos-related disease and can pinpoint how you were exposed. Not many people can trace back their work and residential histories to determine this on their own. We recommend speaking with an asbestos lawyer to uncover the cause of your cancer and learn who is responsible.

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