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What is Asbestos? The History and Danger Behind Asbestos

We’ve all heard the word “asbestos” before, but not many of us know about the history and danger behind it. Believe it or not, the use of asbestos dates all the way back to prehistoric times, although it didn’t become popular until the 18th and 19th centuries. Keep reading to learn more about the history of asbestos, and the dangers behind it.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous materials composed of thin, needle-like fibers...that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency.” The fibers are soft and flexible, but are also resistant to heat, electricity, corrosion, and even acids. These qualities make asbestos extremely useful, but they also make the mineral very toxic. 

While it’s true that some types of asbestos are more hazardous than others, every type is still toxic and poses serious health dangers. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) classifies the following materials as asbestos:

ChrysotileTypes of Asbestos

Also called “white asbestos,” chrysotile is the most common type, and is found in 95 percent of products that contain asbestos in the United States. Chrysotile can still be found today in roofs, ceilings, walls, and floors of some older homes and businesses. 

Amosite

Amosite, or “brown asbestos,” is the second most common type. It’s made up of long, straight fibers and is commonly used as a fire retardant in thermal insulating products, ceiling tiles, and insulating board.

Crocidolite

Also known as “blue asbestos,” crocidolite is made up of short, thin, and flexible fibers. It is not as heat-resistant as other types of asbestos, so it was used more commonly in pipe insulation, cement products, and plastics. 

Anthophyllite

Anthophyllite is the most acid-resistant type of asbestos and has a greenish, gray, or dull brown color. Anthophyllite is fairly rare, so it was used in limited quantities in some construction and insulation products.

Tremolite and Actinolite

Tremolite and actinolite have never been used commercially, and they can both occur in non-asbestos form. Tremolite and actinolite have a similar chemical makeup and can be found as contaminants in other products like vermiculite and talc.

The History of Asbestos

Early Uses

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is present everywhere in the world, and has been for a long time. In fact, many historians believe that the use of Asbestos may date all the way back to 4000 B.C., when its fibers were used for candle and lamp wicks.

Evidence found in Finland supports that, around 2400 B.C., asbestos was used to make clay pots and cooking utensils. Additionally, between 2000-3000 B.C., the Egyptians used cloth containing asbestos during embalming to protect loved ones who had passed. 

Although asbestos had been used for centuries prior, its harmful effects were not documented until the first century A.D. The ancient Greeks and Romans took advantage of the mineral’s unique properties and, consequently, suffered from its harmful effects. In fact, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder documented that the workers who mined asbestos became ill.Greek geographer Strabo noted that workers who wove asbestos cloth suffered from a “sickness of the lungs.” However, the illness was not tied to asbestos until much later. 

Asbestos in the Industrial Age

It wasn’t until the 1800s that the asbestos manufacturing industry really took off on a larger scale. The first companies to exploit asbestos as a resource appeared in England and Scotland around 1860. In 1871, the Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company was established in Glasgow, Scotland. 

It wasn’t long before asbestos mining began to take place on an industrial scale. The first commercial asbestos mines appeared in Canada around 1876, when white asbestos, or chrysotile, was discovered in Quebec. Shortly after, the rest of the world joined in and began mining asbestos. 

Asbestos in the United States

The asbestos industry had an early start in the United States. In 1858, the Johns Company began to mine for fibrous anthophyllite for use as asbestos insulation at the Ward’s Hill quarry in Staten Island, New York. Production of asbestos in the United States became more widespread in 1899, when large deposits of the mineral were discovered in the Belvidere Mountain in Vermont.

By the beginning of the 20th century, asbestos production had spread worldwide, with over 30,000 tons being produced annually for use in concrete, bricks, fire-retardant coatings, and more. 

Toxicity Discovered

It didn’t take long for asbestos to cause health damage to those who worked with it. In the early 1900s, researchers began to notice the prevalence of lung problems, and even deaths, that were present among residents in towns that mined asbestos. 

In 1906, the first asbestos-related death was officially documented by Dr. Montague Murray at the Charring Cross Hospital in London. Shortly after, similar studies were conducted in other countries around the world, like Italy, the United States, and France. 

Manufacturing Continues

Although the dangers of asbestos were clear, manufacturing did not slow down. In fact, world production of asbestos in 1910 was triple what it was in 1900, and the United States became the world’s leading consumer of asbestos. 

In 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report indicating a high risk of early death among asbestos workers. Still, production continued because of the population’s increasing demand for asbestos products. 

During World War II, mining and manufacturing of asbestos declined, but production increased after the war to make up for the loss. The increase in production meant that more and more workers were being exposed to the harmful mineral.. Despite the known health concerns, asbestos was deemed a “service to humanity” in the late 1950s due to its range of uses. 

Peak production of asbestos occurred in the mid-1970s. In 1973, the United States alone was consuming over 800,000 tons. During this time, around 25 countries were producing the mineral, and 85 countries were manufacturing thousands of different asbestos products.

A Rapid Decline

After asbestos production reached its peak in the United States, its usage quickly declined. People were starting to understand the gravity of the health issues that often accompanied asbestos exposure, and new research further proved the danger of the mineral.

Asbestos Regulation

It wasn’t long before employees began filing lawsuits against major asbestos manufacturers, and companies started to label asbestos products with warnings and regulations. Labor unions demanded safer and healthier working conditions, pushing for asbestos substitutes.

Asbestos was officially deemed a hazardous air pollutant by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 through the Clean Air Act. In 1976, asbestos was further regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act, which addressed its production, importation, use, and disposal. 

Over the course of the next decade, much of the asbestos regulation efforts focused on abatement. Although several laws were proposed to ban asbestos, none ever passed. In 1989, the EPA announced that it would begin to phase out the use of asbestos in almost all products in the United States. However, this ruling was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991.

Asbestos Today

Although there are several laws and legislations regulating the mineral, asbestos is still not fully banned in the United States. While the last asbestos mine in the United States closed in 2002, the country still continues to import various products containing asbestos, like construction materials, car parts, and household products.

Today, most asbestos exposure comes from renovation or demolition work on older buildings that still contain asbestos. It’s possible that asbestos is present in commercial structures built prior to 1980. The most common buildings that contain asbestos fibers are:

  • Floor tiles and adhesives
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Roofing shingles, flashing, and adhesives
  • Insulation (around boilers, ducts, pipes, sheeting, and fireplaces)
  • Cements including pipe cement and joint compound

Usually, when asbestos is found in buildings today, professional abatement is required to safely remove all traces of the mineral. 

Dangers of Asbestos

Undisturbed asbestos isn’t very dangerous, but when the asbestos is disturbed, the fiber particles become airborne. If inhaled or swallowed, these fibers can become trapped in the lungs or digestive tract - making them nearly impossible for the body to break down. Once trapped in the body, asbestos particles can cause serious health issues. The three primary asbestos-related diseases are asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. 

Asbestos-related diseasesAsbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease that’s categorized by inflammation and scarring of lung tissue due to asbestos inhalation. This causes permanent damage to the lungs and prevents them from expanding and contracting normally. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to reverse the effects of asbestosis, and treatment involves relieving symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease. In its advanced stages, asbestosis may cause cardiac failure. Most individuals with asbestosis were exposed to asbestos on the job prior to the late 1970s, before its use was regulated.

Lung Cancer

Asbestos-related lung cancer accounts for approximately 4 percent of lung cancer cases and kills over 6,000 Americans each year. While it accounts for a small percentage of lung cancer cases, asbestos-related lung cancer causes the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. 

If trapped inside the lung tissue, asbestos fibers can, over time, cause enough damage for lung cells to become cancerous. Most individuals who develop asbestos-related lung cancer were directly involved in the mining, milling, or manufacturing of asbestos. 

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare, incurable form of cancer that is categorized by a malignant tumor forming in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, chest, or heart. Just about all cases of mesothelioma are linked to asbestos exposure. Sadly, the outlook for mesothelioma is not promising, and most patients are given a prognosis of a year or less. However, the earlier the cancer is detected, the better the prognosis may be. 

Most patients who develop mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos while working in construction, asbestos mines, mills, or plants. Veterans who served on ships or in facilities built with asbestos products are also at risk.

Determining Factors

Not everyone exposed to asbestos develops an asbestos-related illness, but there are a few factors that can determine one's likelihood of contracting a disease. 

The first is the amount and duration of asbestos exposure. The longer a person is exposed to asbestos and the more fibers that enter the body, the greater the chance of developing an asbestos-related illness. 

Another factor that determines one’s likelihood of contracting an asbestos-related disease is exposure to other carcinogens, like smoking. When asbestos exposure is combined with smoking, the lung cancer death rate is 28 times higher than average. 

An important point to note is that it can take decades for asbestos-related diseases to develop after the initial exposure. For example, asbestosis can develop in as few as 10 years after exposure, while lung cancer or mesothelioma typically take 20-50 years to surface.

Companies today are required by law to protect employees from asbestos exposure. Employees must use personal protective equipment provided by their employer, and should wear approved respirators when working around asbestos particles. Because of regulations and increased safety measures, the number of deaths from asbestos-related illness is decreasing. 

If you’re in need of professional abatement services, trust Compleat Restorations to handle your asbestos removal project.

Industrial asbestos caution sign