What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that resists exposure to fire, sound, water, and chemicals. It is composed of millions of fibers, which bind together to create a light yet virtually indestructible material.
Asbestos is mined from natural deposits around the world. Once removed from the ground, it can be processed and developed into a large number of products.
Registered Nurse Amy Fair discusses how exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma. View Transcript.
Duration: 1 min 06 sec
What are the causes of mesothelioma?
Many times after being diagnosed with mesothelioma your physician may ask you if you have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is a causative factor for mesothelioma. Some of the imaging studies may show underlying pleural plaques which are indicated that they have been around asbestos and may show underlying asbestosis.
The risk factors for developing mesothelioma are working around asbestos-related products or being indirectly around those products such as secondhand exposures that are seen with wives that launder their loved ones’ clothes and have asbestos dust on them. So direct asbestos exposure, as well as indirect asbestos exposure, can be causative factors for mesothelioma.
If you have symptoms of mesothelioma or any asbestos-related disease, it’s important that you inform your doctor of your asbestos exposure so that appropriate testing can be done.
Since asbestos naturally resists many elements, it was used in thousands of products. Dozens of industries — and countless jobs — came to rely on asbestos.
Asbestos was used in:
- Construction materials
Yet, the benefits of asbestos could not outweigh one major drawback: If asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, it can lead to mesothelioma, a deadly and incurable cancer.
The manufacturers of asbestos-containing products knew the health risks of asbestos decades before the public did. Instead of keeping people safe, these companies put profits first and actively concealed evidence that asbestos was dangerous.
Eventually, the truth came out and these manufacturers faced thousands of lawsuits from victims who developed mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
If you were exposed to asbestos — and are now suffering from mesothelioma or an asbestos-related illness — you may be able to take legal action and receive financial compensation from these negligent companies.
- 27 million people were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979, according to data presented by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
- Over 45,000 people in the U.S. died from mesothelioma, one of the most notable asbestos-caused diseases, from 1999 to 2015, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Every year, asbestos exposure leads to approximately 250,000 deaths worldwide, according to a 2018 report from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
- Over 90% of asbestos-related deaths stem from workplace asbestos exposure.
Asbestos exposure can cause a variety of illnesses, ranging from mild pleural plaques to deadly cancers like mesothelioma. Get a breakdown of some of the most common diseases below.
Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that can form in the linings of the lungs, heart, abdomen, or testicles.
Most cases of mesothelioma are not diagnosed until after the cancer has spread to other areas in the body, making it harder to treat. However, if mesothelioma is caught early on, patients may be able to live several years after their diagnosis.
How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma
- Exposure: When asbestos products are disturbed, the fibers may be inhaled or ingested.
- Buildup: Then, the asbestos fibers may lodge themselves into the tissue linings of various organs.
- Damage: Once the fibers become stuck, they damage healthy tissue.
- Cancer: In some cases, this tissue damage causes cancerous tumors to form.
It can take 20-50 years of irritation from asbestos fibers before the symptoms of mesothelioma become noticeable. By this point, the cancer may have spread throughout the body.
Those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma are encouraged to find out whether they may be eligible for compensation.
Asbestosis is a non-cancerous lung disease that causes lung scarring and breathing problems. This disease forms after asbestos fibers get trapped inside the lungs.
In cases of asbestosis, the scarring does not cause cancerous tumors to form. Instead, the lung gets progressively weaker and stiffer, leading to painful symptoms such as a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
There is no cure for asbestosis, and treatments can only help keep affected patients comfortable. Asbestosis worsens over time and can be fatal.
Asbestos may cause lung cancer if the fibers get trapped in the lungs and cause the formation of malignant (cancerous) tumors.
Approximately 4,000 cases of lung cancer diagnosed each year are caused by asbestos exposure.
While lung cancer can be deadly, there are treatment options if it is caught early on. Lung cancer tumors tend to appear as growths, meaning that they can be identified and removed, potentially increasing survival time.
Additional Types of Asbestos-Related Diseases
Mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer are only a few negative health effects linked to asbestos exposure.
Other asbestos-related diseases include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Workers exposed to asbestos have a greater risk of COPD, a disease that restricts airflow from the lungs to other parts of the body, according to a 2009 study from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
- Pleural effusions: Pleural effusions occur when fluid builds up within the pleura, the lining of the lungs. They can cause chest pain, coughing, and breathing problems.
- Pleural plaques: When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may damage the pleura and cause collagen to build up. Over time, collagen hardens and forms pleural plaques, a chalky and harmless substance.
- Pleuritis: Also known as pleurisy, this condition occurs when the pleura becomes irritated. It causes chest pain and difficulty breathing.
Some of these health problems, like pleural plaques, are not as serious as mesothelioma. However, doctors sometimes mistake mesothelioma for a less serious condition, so it’s important to get examined by a specialist if you were exposed to asbestos and are now struggling with health issues.
Types of Asbestos
The six types of asbestos are:
- Chrysotile, also called serpentine
- Crocidolite, also called riebeckite
- Amosite, also called cummingtonite-grunerite
These six types of asbestos belong to two main asbestos groups: serpentine asbestos and amphibole asbestos.
Every type of asbestos may cause cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Amphibole asbestos refers to five of the six types of asbestos.
Amphibole asbestos types include:
- Actinolite: This type of asbestos was used in cement, drywall, sealants, and paints.
- Amosite: Also known as brown asbestos, this type is commonly found in South African mines.
- Anthophyllite: This type of asbestos, usually brown or yellow in color, was relatively rare. It was sometimes used to make cement and insulation.
- Crocidolite: Also known as blue asbestos, this form of amphibole asbestos is found in African and Australian mines. It is considered to be the most dangerous type of asbestos, but it was rarely used in commercial products.
- Tremolite: This type of asbestos is known for resisting heat very well, according to the University of Pennsylvania. It was used in paint, insulation, and other materials.
Amphibole asbestos fibers are shaped like needles. Research shows that it takes less exposure to amphibole asbestos to cause cancer, meaning amphibole asbestos can be considered more dangerous.
Thankfully, amphibole asbestos was not used as often as chrysotile asbestos.
Serpentine asbestos is the most common form of asbestos used industrially. Chrysotile asbestos, or white asbestos, is the only type of asbestos that belongs to this group. It has curly and layered fibers.
Research shows that 95% of asbestos used for manufacturing in the United States was serpentine (chrysotile) asbestos.
Serpentine asbestos was often used in:
- Cement as an additive
- Gasket materials for cars and pumps
- Tile floors
- Roofing materials
Since serpentine asbestos was used much more often than amphibole asbestos, the majority of mesothelioma cases are from this group.
However, it’s important to understand that any type of asbestos can be dangerous, not just serpentine asbestos.
Where Can Asbestos Be Found?
Asbestos is found in rock deposits all over the world, including in the United States, China, Russia, and South America. Mining operations are the first step to remove asbestos from the ground so it can be used in different products.
According to the ATSDR, asbestos mining was shut down in the U.S. by 2002.
However, the risk of asbestos is still prevalent even today, as the material can be found in products made before the mining ban.
Common Asbestos-Containing Products
A wide variety of products were made using asbestos since the material was cheap, common, and useful in a number of applications.
The following products may contain asbestos:
- Baby powder
- Brake pads
- Ceiling tiles
- Flooring tiles
Some of these products may still contain asbestos even today despite the well-known health risks.
In May 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found asbestos in Claire’s makeup, which is marketed towards girls and teenagers.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), most people develop asbestos-related illnesses from being regularly exposed at their job.
Before the health risks were widely known, dozens of jobs put people in direct contact with asbestos.
Workers and employers did not know constant asbestos exposure would put people at a high risk of mesothelioma later on.
“I had no construction training whatsoever,” construction worker Teresa Page said in an interview with St. Louis radio station KMOX. Page was diagnosed with mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos on the job.
“I was literally thrown onto a site, just ‘here’s a hammer and bang a wall down.’ But asbestos was in the air. I didn’t know anything about it. There was just no protection.”
Those who served in the military when asbestos was widely used are also at high risk. Much like they did with the general public, asbestos manufacturers of asbestos-containing products did not inform the military of the dangers of asbestos until millions had been put at risk.
Learn about some of the most at-risk asbestos-related occupations below.
Asbestos and Construction
Asbestos, since it is so versatile, could be found in dozens of construction materials. From the 1930s to the early 1980s, many construction workers handled these products on a daily basis.
By nature, construction work kicks up a lot of dust. As asbestos products — such as pipes — were used and installed, fibers could become airborne. On-site workers who regularly breathed in the contaminated air were at risk of disease later on.
Some workers may even be at risk of asbestos exposure today. For example, if an older building with asbestos is demolished it could send fibers into the air and workers could inhale them.
Asbestos and Auto Mechanics
Car parts relied on asbestos to reduce heat and friction, but as these parts wore down, they released asbestos fibers into the air. Mechanics who worked with these products were put at risk of asbestos exposure every day.
Vehicle parts that may have contained asbestos include:
- Brake pads
- Electrical wires
- Transmission parts
As mechanics installed, removed, and repaired asbestos-containing vehicle parts, tiny asbestos fibers could enter the air around them. After decades of constantly inhaling these fibers, many mechanics are now falling ill.
Asbestos and the Military
For over 60 years, the United States military used asbestos products without knowing the deadly risks. The use of asbestos exploded during World War II and did not slow down until the early 1980s.
Asbestos was considered the ideal military-grade material because it was an excellent fire retardant and insulator.
It was used in many military structures, including:
The military didn’t know asbestos was dangerous until thousands of service members had already been exposed.
Today, thousands of military veterans who were exposed to asbestos are now being diagnosed with deadly cancers like mesothelioma and other illnesses. These veterans may receive health care benefits and other compensation by filing a claim with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The U.S. Air Force used asbestos-containing products to prevent its planes, helicopters, and ships from catching on fire. Asbestos was thought of as a perfect product for the Air Force since it was lightweight and resisted fire extremely well.
Common Air Force aircraft parts that contained asbestos included:
- Fuel line coverings
- Gaskets and seals
- Insulation for cabins and cargo bays
In addition to aircraft, many Air Force bases and living quarters were also built with asbestos, making the mineral nearly inescapable. Air Force personnel who worked to build these ships had an incredibly high risk, as they directly handled asbestos products every day.
Anyone who served in the U.S. Army when asbestos was used could have been exposed to asbestos, but some were at a higher risk. In particular, Army construction workers and mechanics often faced daily asbestos exposure.
Asbestos could be found in Army:
- Bases and barracks
- Vehicle parts
As Army personnel worked to build and repair these resources, they could easily cause asbestos fibers to enter the air surrounding them. From there, workers could inhale these fibers and eventually develop mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
Almost all of the Coast Guard’s vehicles and aircraft relied on asbestos-containing products.
Asbestos could be found in Coast Guard:
By using asbestos, these structures could resist both the elements and enemy attacks. Even Coast Guard bases were built with asbestos-containing products.
Unfortunately, anyone who served in the Coast Guard could inhale asbestos fibers on a daily basis due to this widespread use.
U.S. Marines could work alongside any other branch of the military, meaning that they could be at risk of asbestos exposure from many different places. Marines who served aboard Navy ships for long periods of time ran a high risk, as did those who worked in shipyards.
However, Marines could also be exposed through the living quarters, vehicles, and aircraft they used.
Since asbestos use was so widespread, most Marines were exposed no matter where they served.
No branch of the military used more asbestos than the U.S. Navy. Navy ships were lined with asbestos, and many different types of Navy equipment also contained asbestos.
On Navy ships, asbestos could be found in:
- Boiler rooms
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- Cement products
- Engines and engine rooms
Many Navy ships had poor circulation, meaning that asbestos fibers, if disturbed, could linger in the air for long periods of time. This made it easier for Navy veterans to inhale asbestos fibers and get sick decades later.
Navy service members also spent months or years serving aboard these cramped vessels, making their risk of exposure even higher than the other branches.
Secondary Asbestos Exposure
Though workers and military service personnel were at risk of being exposed to asbestos, there was also another lesser-known threat: secondary exposure.
When asbestos particles entered the air, they could settle onto a worker’s:
- Personal items
Those who worked around asbestos risked bringing the fibers home with them, putting their family members at risk of exposure as well.
There are many stories of family members, particularly wives and children, developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases due to secondary exposure at home.
Additionally, secondary exposure affected worksite visitors, office personnel, and anyone else who may have been in or around an asbestos-contaminated worksite.
Manufacturers of Asbestos-Containing Products
Manufacturers have been using asbestos to make a wide variety of products since at least the late 1800s, according to a joint report from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health.
The companies listed below produced and/or sold asbestos-containing products:
- A&I Corporation
- A-Best Products
- API, Inc.
- A.P. Green Industries
- Armstrong World Industries
- ASARCO LLC
- Babcock and Wilcox Company
- Burns and Roe
- C. E. Thurston and Sons
- Combustion Engineering
- Congoleum Corporation
- DII Industries, LLC
- Eagle-Picher Industries
- EJ Bartells Company
- Flintkote Company
- H. K. Porter
- J. T. Thorpe
- Kaiser Aluminum
- Keene Corporation
- Lykes Brothers Steamship Co.
- MacArthur Company
- National Gypsum Company
- Plibrico Company
- Pittsburgh Corning Corporation
- Porter Hayden
- Quigley Company, Inc.
- Raytech Corporation
- Shook and Fletcher
- Skinner Engine Co.
- Stone and Webster
- Swan Transportation Company
- Synkoloid Company
- Thorpe Insulation Company
- UNR Industries
- Utex Industries, Inc.
- Western Asbestos Company
- North American Refractories Company
- United States Mineral Products Company
After the deadly truth about asbestos reached national attention, these manufacturers faced thousands of lawsuits from those who got sick from their products.
Some manufacturers declared bankruptcy and established trust funds to pay victims, while other manufacturers are still dealing with asbestos lawsuits today.
If you used asbestos-containing products made by these manufacturers and got sick, you may be able to file a lawsuit and get financial compensation. There are many other companies that do not appear on this list that also made asbestos-containing products. Contact our team to learn more about manufacturers and if you qualify for compensation.
Are Companies Still Using Asbestos?
Unfortunately, yes. While the use of asbestos has been regulated in the United States, the deadly mineral still is not completely banned. This means that manufacturers still make and sell asbestos-containing products even today.
Asbestos is still in many products and buildings that were made before the U.S. government heavily restricted how the mineral was used, meaning people are still at risk today.
Furthermore, companies around the world continue to use asbestos in everything from building materials to car parts.
Many advocates, policymakers, and political leaders have fought to increase awareness regarding the devastating health risks associated with asbestos. This activism has allowed the federal government to establish programs that victims can use to seek compensation.
Preventing Asbestos Exposure
While the use of asbestos has decreased, there are still many places where it can be found today.
For example, older buildings may still have asbestos-containing products such as tiling, shingles, and shutters. These products are not normally dangerous unless they are damaged or disturbed, as this can release asbestos fibers into the air.
Older cars, mechanical equipment, and construction products may also contain asbestos.
If you believe a product contains asbestos, you should leave it alone and talk to an asbestos removal expert.
Identifying Asbestos-Containing Products
The U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends looking for labels to see if the product in question contains asbestos. Unless the product is labeled, there is no way to tell if it has asbestos.
Common asbestos-containing products include:
- Baby powder
- Talc Powder
If no label can be found, treat the product as if it had asbestos in it and reach out to a professional who can take a sample and analyze it.
Phasing Out and Abating Asbestos
Today, professionals accredited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safely remove asbestos materials from older buildings. This is known as asbestos abatement.
Asbestos abatement allows for the safe removal of asbestos products. Asbestos abatement programs were put in place as a part of a larger plan to phase out the deadly mineral from use.
The U.S. military notably phased out asbestos-containing products throughout the 1980s. Most — but not all — military assets are free of asbestos today.
Today, abatement teams can remove asbestos if it poses a threat to human health.
Friable (easily crumbled) asbestos can break down if it is touched, allowing fibers to be sent into the air more. Friable asbestos-containing products are extremely dangerous and should not be disturbed for this reason.
Friable asbestos-containing products may include:
- Boiler insulation
- Damaged asbestos cement
- Roofing felts
If you believe that you may have a friable asbestos-containing product in your home, consult with an abatement professional immediately. Do not try to remove or dispose of the asbestos products yourself. This could put yourself and those nearby at risk of exposure.
Non-friable asbestos does not normally pose a threat as it is sturdier or may be contained inside other materials.
Non-friable asbestos products may include:
- Asphalt waterproof coating
- Cement sheets
- Vinyl floor tiles
The CPSC recommends leaving asbestos-containing products that are not deteriorating alone. Regularly check — but do not touch — non-friable asbestos products to make sure it is not getting damaged or worn. If it is, consult a professional to have it removed.
Asbestos Lawsuits and Legal Help
If you have developed an asbestos-related illness like mesothelioma, you may be able to receive compensation.
Compensation can be sought through mesothelioma lawsuits and asbestos trust fund claims.
If the company responsible for your illness did not file for bankruptcy, you may be able to file a lawsuit against them. Alternatively, if the company did file for bankruptcy, it may have an asbestos trust fund from which you may seek compensation.
There is over $30 Billion in asbestos trust funds today, and you may be eligible to receive a portion of this money.
Get our free mesothelioma guide today to learn more.
Common Questions about Asbestos
Is asbestos banned today?
While 55 countries around the world have banned asbestos — including Germany, Italy, and Japan — asbestos is still not banned in the U.S. as of 2020.
The EPA tried to ban asbestos completely in 1989, but a court decision overturned this ruling in 1991.
In 2018, the EPA attempted to pass controversial new rules that may have allowed the material to be used again on a case-by-case basis.
After heavy criticism — from both the general public and members of the EPA itself — the organization passed a new rule which banned over 20 asbestos-containing products in 2019. However, this rule still did not ban the material completely.
Mary Hesdorffer, Executive Director of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF), has stated:
“The EPA’s 2019 final rule falls short of its stated goal to protect the public from asbestos exposure as it does nothing to address imported asbestos and the legacy asbestos in our homes and workplaces. Despite regulations, the number of deaths from mesothelioma continues to increase.”
Why was asbestos used if it was dangerous?
Asbestos was widely used because it had many perceived benefits — and the dangers were concealed by the manufacturers, who wanted to keep making money.
Manufacturers knew that asbestos exposure could have serious health problems decades before the general public did. Yet the manufacturers also realized that asbestos was very durable and cheap to use in a wide variety of products.
Unwilling to keep workers — and the general public — safe, these manufacturers suppressed any information about the health risks of asbestos. In the process, these manufacturers turned asbestos into a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Are there safer alternatives to asbestos?
Yes, and many alternatives are being used today. For example, baby powder can be made out of cornstarch instead of talc (which may contain asbestos fibers). Building materials like cement and paint no longer contain asbestos today.
The bottom line is: No matter the supposed “benefits” of asbestos, the deadly mineral should never be used — there are always alternatives.