Asbestos: From Miracle Material to Carcinogen

Research has shown that asbestos exposure often leads to many life-threatening diseases, including Mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. But before the deadly properties of asbestos were discovered, it was actually a revolutionary substance. The information below will help you get a more comprehensive picture of what exactly this complex substance is and what it does.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos, resistant to fire, heat, weather, and chemicals, was often used in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a huge upsurge coming during World War II and finally a peak in usage in the 1960s. After this time, the negative side effects of the fibrous material were discovered, and laws began to regulate its use.

There are two main forms of asbestos: chrysotile (white asbestos) which is made of curly fibers, and amphibole, which has straight fibers. Amphibole asbestos can be further divided into two subgroups of crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos).

Where Is Asbestos Found?

Asbestos is used mostly in the manufacturing, automotive, ship-building, and construction industries. Some of the more common uses of asbestos include building insulation, roofing shingles and siding, ceiling and floor tiles, and paints and plasters. Asbestos has also been used as a cement additive, for the linings on brake and clutch pads, and as wrappings for shipboard boilers and steam lines.

As you can tell from these uses, asbestos was a very commonly used substance. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that asbestos had been used in the construction of upwards of 750,000 public buildings in the United States. Even now, asbestos is present in many older buildings under old coats of paint or wrapped around pipes in the basement.

Despite these typical uses, asbestos was always utilized in many consumer products. Children’s crayons, cosmetics, talcum powder, hair dryers, garden products and space heaters have all been found to contain traces of asbestos.

When Did Asbestos Use Stop?

Because of the latent nature of asbestos related diseases, the dangers of asbestos exposure did not manifest until the early 20th century. Regulation of the substance did not begin until the 1970s, and asbestos was not declared to be a carcinogen until 1987. In 1989, a ban on asbestos use was announced by the EPA. However, a controversial court ruling in 1991 allows some uses of the substance – such as in cement boards and over encapsulated coatings – to continue.

How Is Asbestos Harmful?

Asbestos exposure becomes a health hazard when asbestos fibers become airborne and are inhaled into the lungs. Once in the lungs, asbestos can become embedded in the tissue or lung lining and may eventually accumulate during repeated or long-term exposure. Over time, the presence of the fibers may cause scarring and inflammation and result in difficulty breathing. At its more extreme levels, asbestos inhalation may escalate to a more serious disease, such as asbestosis, lung fibrosis, lung cancer, and Mesothelioma.

Can I Avoid Asbestos?

Because of its ever present nature, asbestos can never be completely avoided. There are low levels of asbestos in the air, water, and soil, in addition to older buildings and other more traditional areas. In spite of this, Mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases are very rare. It takes more than just being in an old building to develop a serious health problem. Most of the people who have been diagnosed with Mesothelioma or a similar disease were constantly exposed to it in the workplace, such as asbestos miners, shipyard workers, construction workers, building demolition workers, and automobile workers. Today, it is estimated that 1.3 million employees in the construction industry are exposed to asbestos at work, but the conditions are strictly regulated by the EPA and other authorities.

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