Asbestos – The Primary Cause of Mesothelioma Cancer

Asbestos, the only known cause of mesothelioma, is a fibrous mineral found in rocks and soil. Prior to 1980, it was commonly used in building and construction materials in buildings, homes, and schools.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals found in rock and soil. These fibers are so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye. Asbestos can be found in many construction materials, such as spray-on insulation and roofing materials. This is why most mesothelioma cases are due to occupational exposure to asbestos. People exposed to asbestos can unintentionally inhale or ingest these toxic airborne particles.

Key Facts About Asbestos

Widely Used Building Material

Asbestos was a critical building component in the military, used in virtually every naval ship from the 1930’s to 1980’s. It was also used in most construction trades during this period.

Used for Thousands of Years

Asbestos has been used since before 3,000 B.C. Records show ancient Egyptians pointing to a related illness that afflicted those who worked with the mineral.

Naturally Occurring

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was often used in manufacturing for its fire-resistant and insulating qualities. It is still widely used in some countries across the globe.

Types of Asbestos

The use of asbestos was still common in the United States until the 1970′s when regulations were first installed to protect people from developing mesothelioma.

Some parts of the world still use asbestos because it is cheap and convenient in manufacturing. Asbestos can still be found today and there have been several other minerals which also pose a threat to those who breathe in the fibers.

Serpentine vs. Amphibole Asbestos

There are two different kinds of asbestos fibers. Serpentine fibers are curly and less harmful to the human body, because they are easier to flush out. Amphibole fibers are straight, rigid and sharp. This causes them to lodge into organs and tissues more easily than serpentine fibers. Amphibole fibers are more likely to cause mesothelioma and lung cancer than serpentine fibers.

Asbestos Subtypes

There are six different subtypes of asbestos used in products: tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite. The three most common used asbestos types are chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite. These three are commonly found in construction materials and automobile parts, like brake pads.


Chrysotile asbestos is also known as “white asbestos” and is the most commonly used form of asbestos. It is primarily found in car gaskets, brake pads, brake linings, insulation, and cement. It is far less likely to become lodged in the lungs compared to the other forms of asbestos because of the serpentine nature of the fibers. Even though it is considered the “safest” form of asbestos, it can still cause illnesses like mesothelioma.


Amosite asbestos is also known as “brown asbestos” or grunerite in its natural form. It is one of the more dangerous forms of asbestos to come in contact with. Amosite has been used to make ceiling tiles, insulation, fire protection, and cement sheets. These fibers are extremely friable, meaning they crumble easily. This results in airborne particles that can be inhaled. Amosite asbestos is made up of amphibole fibers which have a higher risk of causing cancers.


Crocidolite asbestos is also known as “blue asbestos” and is the least commonly used in materials. Crocidolite is the most hazardous of the asbestos family, as it contains amphibole fibers and causes mesothelioma.

18% of those who mined this type of asbestos have developed some sort of related cancer.

It is most commonly found in cement products. Crocidolite asbestos was mined in South Africa and Australia, but it is no longer mined because of the health hazards. Learn more about how asbestos causes mesothelioma in our free Mesothelioma Guide.

History of Asbestos

Asbestos has been mined in the United States since the 1900’s. It is currently mined using an open-pit (open area similar to a valley) method. When asbestos is first extracted, it resembles old wood. It is then refined to a fluffy fiber. The refined asbestos is then added to other materials, like cement or insulation, to form an asbestos containing material.

It is impossible to pinpoint the first uses of asbestos, but archeologists have found traces of the mineral in Scandinavian excavations (pointing to 3000 B.C.). Greek and Romans used the material as fire retardant cloth and building materials.

There are traces of asbestos in suits of armor in the medieval times and for embalming pharaohs in ancient Egypt. The hazards of asbestos were noted in civilized Roman times. Pliny the Elder noted many slaves who worked with asbestos were dying young. Many have speculated that this was mesothelioma or similar complications.

As the Industrial Revolution engulfed America in the early 1800′s, manufacturers found asbestos helped to insulate pipes and fireboxes. Soon, asbestos was mined and used in every facet of construction and manufacturing. It was also used in shipyards, railroad cars, and automotive factories. As time went on, the demand for asbestos increased.

In 1898, inspectors in Great Britain called asbestos one of the top four deadliest dusts in the world. In the early 1900’s, however, the amount invested in insurance policies began decreasing for those with occupational exposure to asbestos.

Even though many companies were aware of these risks, they continued to allow their employees to be exposed.

The United States Geological Survey stated asbestos manufacturing reached an all-time high in 1977 with 4,800,000 tons produced. In 2000, asbestos production decreased to 1,900,000 tons.

Although health risks were known, asbestos materials were being used in building houses, schools, and office buildings up until the 1980’s.

Where Is Asbestos Found?

Asbestos is primarily found in older buildings because prior to the 1980’s and 1990’s there were no restrictions on building with asbestos materials. The health risks were known, but not in full detail. There was a ban on asbestos in the 1970’s but it was lifted when companies complained about lack of substitute materials.

Even though asbestos production has slowed in the U.S., there are still thousands of buildings (including offices, homes, and schools) containing asbestos materials that could potentially cause mesothelioma.

Asbestos is extremely flame-resilient and does not corrode. As a result, it was used in many buildings, homes, and schools built prior to the 1990’s. It has been used in many building materials, such as:

  • Tiles
  • Insulation
  • Roofing shingles
  • Paper products
  • Automobile parts

There are also many asbestos mines throughout the United States. Those who have worked directly with asbestos materials have the highest risk of developing asbestos related cancers. However, secondary exposure can also occur from the people they live around. Many mesothelioma patients were exposed from their loved ones.

Similar Toxic Fibers That Cause Mesothelioma

There are other toxic substances that have similar effects to asbestos. Vermiculite, erionite, and taconite are similar to asbestos because of their physical makeup. These fibers are all naturally occurring and are mined within the United States. Mesothelioma diagnoses have been linked to all of these substances.


Vermiculite is a naturally occurring metamorphic mineral composed of shiny flakes. It is primarily used for gardening and construction purposes. It is heat resistant and light-weight. It is mined in raw ore deposits. On its own, vermiculite is not hazardous.

Vermiculite is rarely contaminated by asbestos; however, it can happen if the two are mined near each other.

The highest amount of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was located in Libby, Montana from the 1920’s to the early 2000’s. Vermiculite was to blame for over 300 people being affected by asbestos-related diseases.


Erionite is a naturally occurring fiber that is found in volcanic ash. It is often compared to asbestos because of its hazardous fibers. Erionite can be found in fibrous form, like asbestos and vermiculite. In the past, erionite was not seen as a health risk.

However, it has proven a hazard to those who come into contact with it. Patients have been diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of being exposed to erionite. These fibers are only a threat if they become airborne. Studies have shown that erionite can be up to 800 more times as carcinogenic than asbestos.

Erionite is found in gravel, rock, or soil. It is no longer mined for use in commercial items. It has been used in minor amounts in the building of some homes in the Western part of the United States (Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming).


Taconite is a sedimentary rock containing iron. After World War II, taconite was heavily used as a source of metal. It is commonly used in the production and manufacturing of steel beams and sheets. Shipbuilders and construction workers are commonly exposed to taconite products.

Taconite is compared with asbestos because of similarities in chemical makeup and the potential hazards. There have been cases of mesothelioma linked to taconite exposure. It is extremely prevalent in Minnesota, where there has been an increased number in mesothelioma diagnoses.

A large amount of taconite is mined and produced in “Iron Range”, Minnesota. This is an area in northern Minnesota famous for its large deposits of iron ore. Taconite products are commonly distributed into the surrounding Great Lakes Region.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

The history of asbestos is vast; however, the history of mesothelioma seems more recent. It was never a secret that asbestos could cause pulmonary issues, but exposure to any type of dust can cause breathing issues. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it was discovered that asbestos causes a deadly cancer, mesothelioma.

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which most commonly affects construction and trade workers and veterans. Luckily, as asbestos and mesothelioma are continually researched, treatments for this disease are getting better.

If you have mesothelioma, the most important step to take is finding an experienced specialist to treat your disease. Get connected to a specialist our free Doctor Match program today.