What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name given to a group of natural mineral fibers that are known for their strength and for their fire and chemical-resistant properties. Because of these qualities, asbestos has been used as a strengthening agent in cement and plastics, as well as a material for insulation, fireproofing, and sound absorption in numerous manufacturing and building and construction industries.

Asbestos fiber colors come in blue, brown, gray, green, and white. In the United States, the white-colored asbestos fibers, called chrysotile, have been the most commonly used. (The three other types of asbestos materials used for commercial purposes are crocidolite, amosite, and anthophyllite.)

What types of products contain asbestos?

More than 5,000 products contain or have contained asbestos, including:

  • Pipe and furnace insulation materials
  • Asbestos and cement shingles, siding, and roofing materials
  • Casings for electrical wires
  • Millboard
  • Resilient floor tiles, the backing on vinyl sheet flooring, and floor tile adhesives
  • Soundproofing or decorative material
  • Patching and joint compound
  • Fireproof gloves, stove-top pads, table pads, fire-resistant fabrics (including blankets and curtains)
  • Automobile brake pads and linings, clutch facings, and gaskets
  • Artificial ashes and embers used in gas-fired fireplaces
  • Some plastics; paints, coatings, and adhesives
  • Some vermiculite-containing attic insulation and consumer garden products

What are the health effects of asbestos?

When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, the asbestos fiber can easily break down into tiny particles too small to be seen, and become airborne. Once airborne, the particles can be inhaled and can remain and collect in the lungs.

Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of developing any of the following diseases and conditions:

  • Lung cancer
  • Asbestosis, which results in permanent lung damage (a scarring of the lung tissue)
  • Mesothelioma, a relatively rare cancer of the chest and abdominal linings
  • Other cancers, including those of the larynx, oropharynx, gastrointestinal tract, and kidney
  • Pleural plaques that result in scarring of the lining of the lung
  • Small pleural effusions (collections of fluid around the lung)

Because of these health risks, in the late 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in several products. In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned all new uses of asbestos. However, many products — and particularly buildings that were built before the late 1970s — contain asbestos.

Who is most at risk of exposure to asbestos?

Most people who have asbestos-related illnesses have had regular exposure to asbestos, typically through jobs where they’ve worked directly with the material. Occupations in which workers have received such exposure include:

  • The shipbuilding trades
  • Railway construction
  • Asbestos mining and milling
  • Construction and building trades (specifically insulation workers, plumbers, pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, boilermakers, welders, and cutters)
  • Chemical manufacturing
  • Flooring manufacturing
  • Plastic and rubber manufacturing
  • The auto industry (specifically brake repair)
  • Firefighters
  • Fabric mills workers
  • Building demolition workers

The longer a person has been exposed to asbestos, and the greater the intensity of the exposure, the greater the chance of developing an asbestos-related disease. However, asbestos-related diseases also have been diagnosed in individuals with only brief exposures to asbestos. People who develop asbestos-related diseases usually show no signs of illness for a long time – for as long as 10 to 40 years – after their first exposure.

Not all individuals who have been exposed to asbestos develop diseases related to their exposure. The risk varies with the extent and length of exposure and the type of industry. For example, industries in which the asbestos is bonded into finished products, such as walls and tiles, pose little health risk. Industries in which asbestos is released into the air, such as from sawing or drilling activities, pose a greater risk.

It can take many years to several decades after exposure for an asbestos-related disease to develop. If you have any of the following symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Development of a cough, or a change in cough patterns
  • Blood in the sputum coughed up from the lungs
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness
  • Significant weight loss

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