What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is the name given to a group of six fibrous minerals that occur naturally in the environment. Chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite and anthophyllite are the four fibers that are most commonly found. The properties in these fibers created a mineral that was exceptionally durable, excellent for insulating, and completely unaffected and resistant to fire. These attributes represent the reasons for the widespread use of asbestos in the United States among various industrial and commercial entities for years.
Its strength and adaptability drove its popularity and enthusiastic acceptance as the leading solution for insulation and fire-proofing needs. It was woven into fabrics for fire-proof vests, mixed with cement during commercial construction, and eventually used in pipe insulation, garage roof tiles, ceiling tiles, textile products and sprayed coatings. These same materials and products were then used to build homes, businesses, military housing, schools, and hospitals all across the United States. Today, asbestos is strictly regulated and even banned in many countries since it is now known to be dangerous and highly toxic. Exposure can be unequivocally and scientifically connected to mesothelioma cancer.
What is the History?
The word “asbestos” is derived from a Greek word meaning “inextinguishable,” and the mineral has a history that dates all the way back to Ancient Greece. Even Ancient Egyptians used cloths made of asbestos to wrap their deceased. Buildings dating back to the Holy Roman Empire used it in their materials, and it also was commonly used in various textiles and clothing. Over many centuries, people marveled over its many uses and considered it a magical mineral.
Even though asbestos was widely and commonly used, early civilizations began to discover and link the mineral to rising pulmonary issues documented among mine workers where the mineral was extracted or by those who handled it while working with textiles. Historians have discovered notes from Ancient Rome that discuss early death and lung sickness among Roman slaves.
It was during the Industrial Revolution that newly opened factories expanded the use of asbestos and therefore increased the demand for the so-called magical mineral. Mines began to appear in the late 1800s because of the overwhelming demand. Additional uses sparked interest among the railroad, shipyard and construction industries. As America expanded, so did the use of asbestos. This newly expanded interest and demand also garnered the attention of entrepreneurs who saw great potential and the opportunity to get rich.
In the 20th century, asbestos was widely used by the United States military, the automobile industry and the building industry. Within the building industry, it was considered a safety product because of its fire-resistant properties. It was used in wall insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, exterior siding, roofing tar and shingles, stucco, drywall tape, gaskets, cement pipes, rain gutters, plaster, putty, caulk, and a host of other building products.
In 1924, a British woman named Nellie Kershaw became the first ever recorded case of where someone died due to their asbestos exposure. Kershaw developed asbestosis and passed away from the devastating disease. In the 1930s, it became increasingly evident that there was indeed a connection between deadly respiratory lung diseases and asbestos. Yet the its use continued, unaffected by the chilling evidence.
Asbestos use began to decline during the 1970s as exposure lawsuits were on the rise. However, many everyday products still include it as an added ingredient. Though a U.S. ban in 1991 restricted its use in some products, it was still permitted on a regulated basis. In 1994, the world-renowned and well-respected World Health Organization determined that Mesothelioma is in fact an asbestos disease. As of today, the United States has still not completely banned asbestos or its use.
What are the Different Types?
The six different types of minerals determined to be asbestos are:
These six different types are categorized into two categories, serpentine or amphibole. The serpentine category contains only the chrysotile type and it is characterized by curly fibers and a layered structure. The amphibole category contains actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite and tremolite and it is characterized by sharp and straight fibers structured in a long chain.
Actinolite is a very rare form commonly found in metamorphic rock and it is part of the amphibole family. Since this type of asbestos was rare, it wasn’t readily used in many products. When it was, it was used for insulation, paint and drywall.
Amosite is commonly called “Brown Asbestos,” but it has not been mined in the past decade and most nations banned it within the last 30 years. This type of asbestos was very popular in insulation used in buildings, factories and barracks.
Anthophyllite is a type that was not commonly used in products or materials. However, miners who work in talc mines have been exposed to anthophyllite and many of them have developed medical issues in their lungs due to inhalation of asbestos fibers.
Chrysotile is the most commonly used form of asbestos in products, construction materials and many other items. Since it was used so readily by developed nations in building their homes, factories and buildings, most people were exposed to chrysotile. Even though it has most likely caused the most health issues of any of the types, it is still mined today.
Crocidolite commonly is called “Blue Asbestos,” and it was not used very often in manufacturing because it lacks the heat-resistant characteristic desired by manufacturers. Though it was not readily used, individuals are at risk when exposed because of the needle-like fibers that can puncture human skin or can easily be inhaled. Scientists believe that crocidolite is the most deadly form of asbestos.
Tremolite is a type that is found in talc and vermiculite mines. This type was used in insulation in millions of homes in the United States. Tremolite has been linked to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.