Asbestos is a mineral that occurs naturally under the ground. It is found in mines where, for the last 100 to 150 years, it was taken out of the mines to be used across several different industries.
Asbestos was once considered a clean, safe product to use for construction because it had a good tensile strength, was heat resistant and was a good insulating material.
The fibers were mixed into wet cement and woven in factories to make a fabric that was used in things such as fire-proof vests, commercial construction and home insulation.
It was only until later that asbestos was found to be toxic, and the link between mesothelioma and exposure to asbestos was established.
The History of Asbestos
Asbestos has actually been used for thousands of years. It was used in ancient Greece to make wicks of candles that would not burn out easily. The Egyptians used cloth made of asbestos to put on the burial clothing of ancient pharaohs. Citizens of Rome used tablecloths and napkins that were woven from fibers containing asbestos in ancient times. It has also been found in pottery that dates back to the Stone Age.
In the late 1800s, developed countries began their Industrial Revolution and used asbestos in many different products. The demand for the substance was great and many new asbestos mines were uncovered and they began to put out large quantities of the mineral. Asbestos began to be used extensively in shipbuilding and the railroad industry in order to insulate ships and submarines, as well as steam engines on trains. Brakes were made from asbestos and put into automobiles. Friction products and clutches in automobiles were also made using asbestos.
Because it had many great properties, the US Military required that it be used in all branches of the military. It was mandated that all submarines be fireproofed with asbestos, which also insulated submarines from the effects of the cold ocean waters.
Currently, because of its toxicity, it is banned from being used in any type of product in many countries. It is still being used in the US, but only in limited areas.
Types of Asbestos
Scientists now know that there are six different types of asbestos. All types can cause mesothelioma even though they have different chemical properties.
The types of asbestos include:
- Chrysotile. This is the major type of asbestos used in many industries. It is made from long and curly fibers and while 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 and has straighter and shorter fibers when compared to chrysotile. It was previously used to make products for construction.
- Crocidolite. This isn’t as heat-resistant as other types of asbestos, so it isn’t used as much 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 in the ground near deposits of chrysotile and vermiculite. It has been found to contaminate vermiculite mines and was inadvertently incorporated into 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, as well as to make paint and drywall.
There are dozens of different kinds of jobs that have exposed its employees to asbestos throughout the years. The greatest risk of asbestos exposure used to be in military personnel, who now make up almost a third of all mesothelioma cases.
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, steam fitters, 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.
The main category of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease that are not related to the workplace includes the families of workers in high risk industries. They inhale secondhand asbestos from fibers brought home on the workers’ clothing.
One needs to be careful when working in homes that were built prior to 1980, as many of these homes 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 these homes often allows asbestos to be manipulated or removed, exposing homeowners and construction crews to the mineral.
More than 50 countries have banned the use of asbestos due to its toxicity. Interestingly enough, it is not banned in Canada or the US. It is heavily used throughout China and India, where it is used as insulation for all types of homes and buildings.
On the positive side, the use of asbestos has declined as of 1999. Even so, about 2 million metric tons of the mineral is mined every year in today’s time.
In spite of the bans and restrictions in the use of asbestos, about 43,000 individuals die throughout the world from complications related to asbestos exposure. This is because it takes between 10-50 years from the time of exposure to the onset of mesothelioma and there are still many people harboring asbestos in their body that could still develop an asbestos-related illness.
The most common condition arising out of exposure to asbestos is mesothelioma. It affects about 3,000 US citizens per year. There are virtually no cases of mesothelioma that haven’t been tied to an exposure to asbestos.
Besides mesothelioma, individuals can develop adenocarcinoma of the lungs from asbestos, especially if they are also smokers. A non-cancerous complication of asbestos exposure is a lung disease called asbestosis, for which there is no cure.