Asbestos Explained

Mention the word “asbestos” and many people will scowl and think of it as another example of technology gone amok – a synthetic, man-made horror story spreading disease and death.

Asbestos Materials

In fact, asbestos is a common silica mineral found in many parts of the world.  It is composed of tiny individual fibers and its usefulness comes from its rather unique ability to be separated into groups of larger threadlike fibers.  There are six forms of naturally occurring asbestos.  Chrysotile asbestos has fibers that are curled, flexible, and tend to lock onto to a surface in which they embed.  The other five types of asbestos all have straight, needle-like fibers.

When people discovered that asbestos fibers were flexible enough to be woven like cloth, the uses of this hardy mineral began to expand.  In addition to being strong, asbestos has well known fire resistant qualities.  The ancient Greeks are known to have put asbestos fibers to a variety of uses including lamp wicks, clothing, and fireplace construction.  As the world became increasingly industrialized the uses of asbestos grew until by the early twentieth century there were literally thousands of applications for this hardy, versatile, readily available and inexpensive mineral.

Asbestos Risks & Hazards

The link between asbestos exposure, lung disease and poor health was recognized early in the use of the mineral.  Documented accounts dating from Greek and Roman times noted health issues with slave populations that worked in asbestos mines. Because individual asbestos fibers are quite fine, inhaling asbestos dust from mining operations was an occupational hazard. But it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century when asbestos use began growing at an exponential rate that the medical community re-discovered the link between asbestos exposure and lung disease.  Physicians discovered that when tiny asbestos fibers are inhaled, particularly the curly, flexible chrysotile asbestos fibers, they become irretrievably embedded in the lungs and severely impair lung function, a disease that was christened “asbestosis”.  By the early 1930s physicians were also noting a significantly higher rate of the lung cancer mesothelioma among asbestos workers.

Asbestos Regulations

While the process of recognizing the specific dangers of asbestos has been interrupted there is little question today that breathing asbestos fibers can cause lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asbestosis, and the lung cancer mesothelioma.  Today, exposure to asbestos in the workplace is heavily regulated.  Barring an industrial accident or serious violations of workplace rules, there is little risk of workplace exposure to asbestos.  In addition, much of the government’s regulatory effort has gone toward mandating the use of manufacturing techniques that encapsulate or ‘fix’ asbestos in a manufactured product thereby reducing or eliminating the risk posed by inhaling fibers from friable asbestos.  “Friable” means easily crumbled or reduced to a powder.

Asbestos in Homes, Buildings, and Products

Despite today’s prohibition on the manufacture of friable asbestos products, many older homes and commercial building still have original materials that contain friable asbestos.  People should keep this clearly in mind and use appropriate safeguards when remodeling or handling older building materials that may contain asbestos.

Asbestos Legal Help

Health issues remain for a sizeable population that was exposed to asbestos prior to the implementation of regulatory protections and controls.  Diseases such as COPD, asbestosis and mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure continue to be a significant health issue in the US today.  For more information on current asbestos regulation or assistance with understanding risks and health issues related to asbestos exposure, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission, your state Attorney General or a qualified attorney.

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