Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be mined and used as an insulating and fire-resistant material. In addition to the traits that made it a reliable product, it was discovered in asbestos is also a highly toxic material. Asbestos products have been directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths through the diseases it causes like mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.
Asbestos was once considered a safe product to use for construction. It is strong and heat resistant, making it a good insulating material. It was also cheap. For manufacturers and builders, asbestos was a wonder mineral.
It was used in virtually every type of insulation job imaginable from WWII to the late 1980s. This asbestos exposure caused mesothelioma among countless blue-collar workers and veterans.
Asbestos fibers were mixed into wet cement and woven in factories to make fabric. It was used in things ranging from fire-proof vests to commercial and home insulation.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that scientists discovered that asbestos was a carcinogenic material. Carcinogens are substances that are known to cause cancer in human tissue. Many toxins found in tobacco, like arsenic, are examples of proven carcinogens. Researchers established the link between mesothelioma and exposure to asbestos in the 1970s.
The History of Asbestos
Asbestos has been used for thousands of years. It was used in ancient Greece to make long-lasting candles wicks. The Egyptians used fabric made of asbestos to put on the burial clothing of ancient pharaohs. Ancient Romans used tablecloths and napkins that were woven from fibers containing asbestos. It has also been found in pottery that dates back to the Stone Age.
In the late 1800s, the industrial revolution sparked the use of asbestos in many different products. The demand for the substance grew and new asbestos mines were uncovered. As the quantity of asbestos grew, so too did the number of asbestos products. Asbestos became commonplace in shipbuilding and the railroad industry.
The next industrial boom happened around WWII. The huge production of aircraft and other vehicles skyrocketed. People discovered even more uses for asbestos. Brakes were made from asbestos and put into automobiles. Friction products and clutches in automobiles were also made using asbestos.
Some countries have completely banned the use of asbestos. Asbestos is still used legally in the U.S. but only in limited areas.
Asbestos in the Military
Asbestos was particularly well-suited for military applications. So veterans could find asbestos almost everywhere they were. The U.S. armed forces used asbestos in every military branch. This is why over ⅓ of mesothelioma victims are U.S. veterans. Navy veterans usually have the worst history of asbestos exposure.
The U.S. government mandated that all submarines and ships be fireproofed with asbestos. This also insulated submarines from the effects of cold ocean waters. Yet, this also put submariners, shipbuilders, and seaman at a uniquely high risk of developing mesothelioma.
Here is some more information about veterans, asbestos exposure, and mesothelioma:
- Asbestos exposure by military branch
- Asbestos on Navy ships
- VA benefits for mesothelioma patients
- Getting treatment for mesothelioma at the VA
Types of Asbestos
Scientists now know that there are 6 different types of asbestos. All types can cause mesothelioma even though they have different chemical properties.
The types of asbestos include:
- Chrysotile: This is a major type of asbestos used in many industries. It is made of long and curly fibers. It was once believed to be nontoxic. Researchers have found that is just as carcinogenic as other asbestos types.
- Amosite: This is a type of asbestos believed to be highly toxic. It is mainly mined out of South Africa. It has straighter and shorter fibers when compared to chrysotile. It was previously used to make products for construction.
- Crocidolite: This type isn’t as heat-resistant as other types of asbestos. So it isn’t used as often in industrial products. It is the most toxic of all asbestos types because it has very slender particles that travel easily throughout the body.
- Tremolite: This is found within the ground near deposits of chrysotile and vermiculite. It has been found to contaminate vermiculite mines. Tremolite asbestos was inadvertently incorporated into vermiculite attic insulation in millions of homes in the US.
- Anthophyllite: This is a rarer type of asbestos that can be mined in Georgia, North Carolina, and Finland.
- Actinolite: This dark-colored fiber consists of straight needles. It was often mixed with vermiculite in the making of insulation. It was also used to make paint and drywall.
Asbestos can be friable or non-friable. Friability describes substances that crumble easily. Friable asbestos can be broken apart just by touching it. Non-friable (or “bonded”) asbestos is more sturdy. Bonded asbestos products are made up of asbestos fibers mixed with substances like cement.
Some friable asbestos products are 100% asbestos. Asbestos only makes up about 15% of non-friable type products.
The most dangerous types of asbestos are friable types. This is because friable asbestos becomes airborne with little to no effort. Touching a friable asbestos product can release countless toxic fibers into the air. Old or damaged bonded asbestos products can also become friable.
Other job categories that have a high risk of having exposure to asbestos include jobs related to the construction industry. Exposure is higher in electricians, steamfitters, and pipefitters, who come in contact with insulation all of the time as part of their job. Because these types of jobs are usually associated with men, it is men who make up the vast majority of mesothelioma sufferers.
There is another category of people at risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This category consists of the family members of workers in high-risk industries. They inhale secondhand asbestos from fibers brought home on the clothing of their family member.
Exposure can also happen at home. Many homes built before 1980 are insulated with asbestos-containing insulation. Asbestos can also be found in homes that contain certain types of roofing, floor tiles, appliances, furnaces, fireplaces, window caulking, and plumbing fixtures.
Renovating older homes can release asbestos into the air. This can cause exposure to family members. There are professional companies that specialize in safe asbestos removal.
Asbestos is heavily used throughout China and India, with no signs of banning the substance. More than 50 countries in the world have banned the use of asbestos due to its toxicity.
Asbestos is not banned in the United States or Canada.
Asbestos is not banned in the United States or Canada.
In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency made a plan to get rid of and ban most of the asbestos-containing products in the United States. This was after a decade-long research paper with hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence highlighting the dangers of asbestos. But the asbestos industry blocked the ban in 1991.
Though it acknowledged that asbestos in any amount caused cancer, in 1991 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit threw out most parts of the EPA’s rule, saying the agency failed to prove that a ban was the ‘least burdensome alternative’ for controlling the public’s exposure.
— EWG Action Fund
In other words, the court decided that banning asbestos would be too expensive for companies producing asbestos-containing materials. On the positive side, the use of asbestos has declined significantly since 1999. Even so, about 2 million metric tons of the mineral is mined around the world every year.
In spite of asbestos bans and restrictions, about 43,000 people in the world die from asbestos exposure. This is because it takes between 20-50 years from the time of exposure to the onset of mesothelioma. Even countries that have banned the mineral have many people harboring asbestos in their bodies.
Asbestos can lead to a few different types of illnesses, all of which develop decades after someone was first exposed. Most asbestos-related illnesses are deadly or cause long-term health issues.
Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. This rare but deadly form of cancer affects about 3,000 U.S. citizens per year.
Mesothelioma is caused when asbestos fibers get lodged in the linings of the lungs, heart, abdomen, or testicles. Asbestos fibers are highly durable, so they cannot be naturally broken down by the human body.
These fibers irritate nearby healthy tissue, eventually causing cellular mutations and the growth of cancerous tumors. Mesothelioma has no cure, but treatments are available to extend a patient’s life span.
Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), nearly 300,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019.
Lung cancer is often attributed to smoking, genetics and other factors. However, it can also develop if asbestos fibers get stuck inside the lungs directly. Those who worked in a high-risk asbestos occupation and also smoked cigarettes may be at a higher risk of developing lung cancer.
The ACS notes that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. However, treatments are available to help patients live longer.
Smokers with asbestos exposure may also develop asbestosis, a noncancerous disease. Asbestosis causes permanent scarring to the lungs, which in turn leads to breathing problems that only worsen over time.
Asbestosis has no cure, and there are also no treatments that help reverse the damage to the lungs. That being said, doctors may prescribe exercise regimens and treatments such as oxygen therapy to improve the patient’s overall health.
Pleural plaques occur when asbestos fibers scar parts of the respiratory system. This scarring causes collagen, a natural protein, to build up in the body. The collagen then hardens and turns into plaques. Pleural plaques are not harmful but may be an indicator of more serious asbestos diseases.
If You’ve Been Diagnosed with Mesothelioma
People diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease need to find a specialist. This is the first step to take after being diagnosed. You should also consider a second opinion to ensure you receive the proper treatment. Patients may also be eligible for mesothelioma-specific benefits that can help pay for treatment and lost wages.
Benefits you may be eligible for include:
- VA disability compensation or pension
- Free health care or reduced copay through the VA
- Access to Asbestos Trust Funds
Veterans with mesothelioma have more resources than the average mesothelioma patient. Veterans even have access to mesothelioma specialists within the VA healthcare system. Many people are also eligible for compensation from an asbestos trust fund. These funds were created to help mesothelioma victims and their families. Find out how to access your benefits and compensation now.