Asbestos

Asbestos is a highly durable but dangerous mineral. From the 1930s to the early 1980s, asbestos was used widely due to its resistance to heat, fire, and sound. People can develop deadly illnesses like mesothelioma if they breathe in or swallow asbestos fibers. Although asbestos has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, it is still not banned in the United States. Learn more about the different types of asbestos and where they’ve been most commonly found.

Written and Fact-Checked by: Laura Wright

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 many products.

Causes of Mesothelioma Video Thumbnail

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, manufacturers used it to make thousands of products. As a result, dozens of industries — and countless jobs — came to rely on asbestos.

Asbestos was used in:

  • Buildings
  • Construction materials
  • Helicopters
  • Planes
  • Ships
  • Vehicles

Yet, the benefits of asbestos could not outweigh one major drawback: If a person inhales or swallows asbestos fibers, they can develop mesothelioma, a deadly and incurable cancer.

Quick Facts About Asbestos
  • About 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed every year in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Researchers estimate that more than 26,000 people around the globe died from mesothelioma in 2020.
  • Approximately 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979, according to data presented by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
  • Asbestos exposure leads to about 250,000 deaths worldwide each year.
  • More than 90% of asbestos-related deaths stem from workplace asbestos exposure.

The manufacturers of asbestos-containing products knew the health risks of asbestos decades before the public did. However, 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 product makers faced thousands of lawsuits from victims who developed mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Between 1940 - 1979, it's estimated that 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos.

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.

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Asbestos exposure can cause various illnesses, ranging from mild pleural plaques to deadly cancers like mesothelioma. Get a breakdown of some of the most common diseases below.

Mesothelioma

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that can form in the lining 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

  1. Exposure: When asbestos products are disturbed, the fibers may be inhaled or ingested.
  2. Buildup: Then, the asbestos fibers may lodge themselves into the tissue linings of various organs.
  3. Damage: Once the fibers become stuck, they damage healthy tissue.
  4. Cancer: In some cases, this tissue damage causes cancerous tumors to form.

It can take 10-50 years of irritation from asbestos fibers before the symptoms of mesothelioma become noticeable. By this point, the cancer may have spread throughout the body.

To learn more about asbestos safety and exposure risks, check out our Free Asbestos Guide.

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Asbestosis

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.

Sadly, there is no cure for asbestosis, but treatments can help keep patients comfortable. Asbestosis worsens over time and can be fatal.

Lung Cancer

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 a patient’s life expectancy.

Other Types of Asbestos-Related Diseases

Mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer are only a few of the adverse health effects linked to asbestos exposure.

Additional asbestos-related diseases include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Workers exposed to asbestos have a greater risk of COPD. This disease restricts airflow from the lungs to other parts of the body.
  • 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 can 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. For that reason, 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

Asbestos is often used as a blanket term when describing the only known cause of mesothelioma, but there are, in fact, several different types of asbestos. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) identifies six different types of asbestos.
Close-up of asbestos fibers

The 6 types of asbestos are:

  • Actinolite
  • Amosite, also called cummingtonite-grunerite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Chrysotile, also called serpentine
  • Crocidolite, also called riebeckite
  • Tremolite

These six types of asbestos belong to two main asbestos groups: amphibole asbestos and serpentine asbestos.

Every type of asbestos can cause cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Amphibole Asbestos

Amphibole asbestos refers to five of the six types of asbestos.

Amphibole asbestos types include:

  • Actinolite: Manufacturers used this type of asbestos to make cement, drywall, sealants, and paints.
  • Amosite: Also known as brown asbestos, it is commonly found in South African mines.
  • Anthophyllite: This type of asbestos, usually brown or yellow in color, is relatively rare. It was sometimes used to make cement and insulation.
  • Crocidolite: This form of asbestos, also known as blue 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 being heat resistant. Manufacturers used it in paint, insulation, and other products.

Amphibole asbestos fibers are shaped like needles. Researchers have found that it takes less exposure to amphibole asbestos to cause cancer.

Thankfully, amphibole asbestos was not used as often as serpentine asbestos.

Serpentine 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 U.S. was serpentine asbestos.

Serpentine asbestos was often used in:

Since serpentine asbestos was used much more often than amphibole asbestos, most mesothelioma cases are from this group.

However, it’s vital to understand that any type of asbestos can be dangerous and cause disease, not just serpentine asbestos.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, our Patient Advocates can provide you with treatment information and other resources.

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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 remove asbestos from the ground so it can be processed and used in different products.

Asbestos mining was shut down in the U.S. in 2002, according to the ATSDR.

However, the risk of asbestos is still prevalent today because the material can be found in products made before the mining ban.

Common Asbestos-Containing Products

Companies made a wide variety of products using asbestos since the material was cheap, common, and useful in many applications.

The following products may contain asbestos:

Some of these products may contain asbestos even today despite the well-known health risks.

In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised consumers to stop using certain Claire’s makeup products that had tested positive for asbestos. The brand is marketed toward teenage girls.

Asbestos-Related Occupations

Roofing sheets with asbestos fibers on them
Old roofing sheets containing asbestos

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), most people develop asbestos-related illnesses from being regularly exposed at work.

Numerous jobs put people in direct contact with asbestos before the health risks were widely known.

Workers did not know regular asbestos exposure would put them at a high risk of developing 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.”
Construction worker Teresa Page

Those who served in the military when asbestos was widely used are also at high risk. Much like they did with the general public, manufacturers of asbestos-containing products did not inform the military of the dangers of asbestos until millions had been put in danger.

Learn about some of the riskiest asbestos-related occupations below.

Asbestos and Construction

Since it is so versatile, asbestos could be found in a wide range of construction materials. From the 1930s to the early 1980s, many construction workers handled these products daily.

By nature, construction work kicks up a lot of dust. As asbestos products — such as pipes and drywall — were cut and installed, fibers could become airborne. On-site workers who regularly breathed in the contaminated air were put at risk of getting sick decades later.

Some workers may even be at risk of asbestos exposure today. For example, demolishing an older building with asbestos could send fibers into the air, and workers could inhale them.

Asbestos and Auto Mechanics

Car parts manufacturers relied on asbestos to reduce heat and friction. However, as these parts wore down, they released asbestos dust into the air. As a result, 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
  • Clutches
  • Electrical wires
  • Engines
  • Transmission parts

As mechanics installed, removed, and repaired asbestos-containing vehicle parts, tiny asbestos fibers often entered the air around them. After decades of constantly inhaling these fibers, many mechanics are now falling ill.

Did you or a loved one get sick after working with products that contained asbestos? You may be able to access compensation from asbestos trust funds — we’ll help determine if you qualify.

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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:

  • Bases
  • Planes
  • Ships
  • Vehicles

The military didn’t know asbestos was dangerous until thousands of service members had already been exposed.

Today, military veterans exposed to asbestos are 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).

Download our Free Veterans Compensation Guide today to learn if and how you can access financial assistance for an asbestos-related illness.

Air Force

The U.S. Air Force used asbestos-containing products to prevent its planes, helicopters, and ships from catching on fire. Asbestos was considered a perfect product for the Air Force since it was lightweight and resisted fire exceptionally well.

Common Air Force aircraft parts that contained asbestos included:

  • Engines
  • Fuel line coverings
  • Gaskets and seals
  • Insulation for cabins and cargo bays
  • Sealants

Additionally, many Air Force bases and living quarters were built with asbestos, making the mineral nearly inescapable. As a result, Air Force personnel who built these structures had an incredibly high risk, as they directly handled asbestos products.

Army

Anyone who served in the U.S. Army when asbestos was used could have been exposed to asbestos, but some faced a higher risk. In particular, Army construction workers and mechanics often faced daily asbestos exposure.

Asbestos could be found in Army:

As Army personnel worked to build and repair these resources, they could easily cause asbestos fibers to enter the air. From there, workers could inhale these fibers and eventually develop mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.

Coast Guard

Almost all Coast Guard vehicles and aircraft relied on asbestos-containing products.

Asbestos could be found in Coast Guard: 

  • Boats
  • Cars
  • Helicopters
  • Planes
  • Trucks

By using asbestos, these structures could resist both the elements and enemy attacks. Even Coast Guard bases were built with asbestos-containing products.

Unfortunately, many who served in the Coast Guard inhaled asbestos fibers on a daily basis due to this widespread use.

Marines

U.S. Marines often worked alongside other military branches, meaning they were at risk of asbestos exposure from many different places. Marines who served aboard Navy ships for long periods 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, many Marines were exposed no matter where they served.

Navy

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 contained asbestos.

On Navy ships, asbestos could be found in:

Many Navy ships had poor circulation, meaning that asbestos fibers, if disturbed, could linger in the air for long periods. 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 exposure to asbestos, there was another lesser-known threat — secondary exposure.

When asbestos particles entered the air, they could settle onto a worker’s:

  • Clothing
  • Equipment
  • Hair
  • Personal items
  • Skin

Those who worked around asbestos risked bringing the fibers home with them and putting their family members at risk of exposure, too.

There are many stories of family members, particularly wives and children, developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases due to secondary or take-home exposure. Wives were especially at risk as they typically handled and washed their husband’s asbestos-tainted work clothes.

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 used 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, sold, or distributed asbestos-containing products:

  • A&I Corporation
  • A-Best Products
  • AC&S
  • 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
  • Federal-Mogul
  • Flintkote Company
  • H. K. Porter
  • J. T. Thorpe
  • Kaiser Aluminum
  • Keene Corporation
  • Lykes Brothers Steamship Co.
  • MacArthur Company
  • National Gypsum Company
  • North American Refractories 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
  • United States Mineral Products Company
  • UNR Industries
  • Utex Industries, Inc.
  • Western Asbestos Company

After the deadly truth about asbestos gained national attention, these and many other manufacturers faced thousands of lawsuits from those who got sick from their products.

Some manufacturers declared bankruptcy and established asbestos trust funds to pay victims, while others are still dealing with asbestos lawsuits today.

If you used asbestos-containing products made by these manufacturers or others that do not appear on this list and got sick, you may be able to file a lawsuit and get financial compensation.

Contact our team today at (866) 608-8933 to learn more about mesothelioma and whether you may be eligible for compensation.

Are Companies Still Using Asbestos?

Unfortunately, yes. While the use of asbestos has been regulated in the United States, the deadly mineral has not been completely banned. As a result, manufacturers still make and sell asbestos-containing products today.

Additionally, asbestos is in many products and buildings made before the U.S. government heavily restricted how the mineral was used. Asbestos remaining in old buildings or products is known as legacy asbestos.

The bottom line is that people are still at risk today.

In April 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed banning almost all remaining uses of asbestos. If finalized, the rule would go a long way toward providing workers and families with the protection they have always deserved.

In the meantime, many advocates, policymakers, and political leaders continue to fight for increased awareness of the devastating health risks of 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 structures, including school buildings, may contain asbestos insulation, shingles, and tiling. These products are generally not 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 a product contains asbestos. Unless the product is labeled, it is impossible to tell if it has asbestos.

Common asbestos-containing products include:

  • Baby powder
  • Drywall
  • Insulation
  • Piping
  • Paint
  • Talcum powder

If no label can be found, treat the product as if it contains asbestos and reach out to a professional who can take a sample and analyze it.

Learn more about identifying asbestos-based products in our Free Asbestos Guide.

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Phasing Out and Abating Asbestos

Today, professionals accredited by the EPA safely remove asbestos materials from older buildings. This removal of asbestos is also known as asbestos abatement.

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. As a result, most — but not all — military assets are free of asbestos today.

Today, abatement teams can remove asbestos if it threatens human health.

Friable Asbestos

Friable (easily crumbled) asbestos can break down if touched, allowing fibers to be sent into the air. 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 you have a friable asbestos-containing product in your home, consult an abatement professional immediately. Do not try to remove or dispose of the asbestos products yourself. This could put you and those nearby at risk of exposure.

Non-Friable Asbestos

Non-friable asbestos does not usually pose a threat since it is sturdier or often 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 they are not getting damaged or worn. If they are, consult a professional to have the products 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 might be able to file a lawsuit against them. Alternatively, if the company did file for bankruptcy, you may be able to access compensation from its asbestos trust fund. There’s over $30 billion in asbestos trust funds today, and you may be eligible to receive a portion of this money.

Download our Free Asbestos Guide to learn more about asbestos safety and exposure risks.

Asbestos FAQs

Is asbestos banned today?

While more than 60 countries worldwide have banned asbestos — including Germany, Italy, and Japan — asbestos is still not banned in the U.S. as of late 2022.

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 restrict the material entirely.

In April 2022, the EPA proposed banning all uses of chrysotile asbestos, which is the only known type of asbestos currently imported into the U.S. This type of asbestos is found in products such as gaskets and brake linings. The proposed rule has yet to be finalized.

Why was asbestos used if it was dangerous?

Asbestos was widely used because it was cheap and had many perceived benefits. Also, manufacturers who used asbestos in their products concealed the dangers because they wanted to keep making money.

Manufacturers knew that asbestos exposure could cause serious health problems decades before the general public did.

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). In addition, 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 safer alternatives.

What is asbestos and why is it harmful?

Asbestos is a group of minerals that many manufacturers used to make various products, including construction materials and automotive parts. Manufacturers favored asbestos because it was cheap and resistant to heat and sound.

When inhaled, asbestos fibers can cause deadly diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Each year, thousands of people die of asbestos-related diseases.

Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 14 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

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