Millions of people around the world have been exposed to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that has been used for centuries for its insulating properties. Exposure to asbestos can lead to major health problems, including mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer and asbestosis. Exposure occurs when microscopic asbestos fibers are released into the air – either during the manufacture of asbestos-containing products or when asbestos-containing materials deteriorate or are disturbed – and then inhaled.
Asbestos-related disease can take 20-50 years to develop after exposure. If you are experiencing symptoms associated with mesothelioma or asbestosis or if you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illness, time is of the essence. The Mesothelioma Options Help Center provides comprehensive and speedy assistance and support for you and your family to help you navigate the complex choices you have to make about treatment as well as financial and legal issues. Contact the Center today for more information, or speak to a nurse now if you have specific questions about your condition.
Commercial mining and manufacture of asbestos began in the 1800s but expanded exponentially during World War II. It is estimated that millions of civilian and military workers in the United States have been exposed to asbestos since the 1940s. Production slowed dramatically in the 1970s as the health risks of asbestos became known, but thousands of products containing asbestos that were manufactured over the years remain potential sources of exposure today.
Asbestos mining and manufacturing operations constitute an obvious category of worker exposures, but other industries that used asbestos in the manufacture of various products do as well. Those most likely to be exposed to asbestos include those involved in commercial and residential construction and renovation; the automotive, insulation, heating and pipefitting trades; shipyard workers; and the military. Factory workers may also have been subjected to asbestos exposure depending on the type of products being manufactured in a given facility.
Though most people who contract mesothelioma were in direct contact with asbestos at work, that is not always true. Cases of patients whose exposure was the result of simply living near an asbestos mine or asbestos manufacturing plant have been well-documented – Libby, Montana serves as a particularly disturbing example, and the federal government has identified 28 manufacturing sites that are considered priorities for monitoring and evaluating environmental asbestos exposure. Moreover, the spouses of workers who were in direct contact with significant concentrations of asbestos have also contracted mesothelioma as a result of breathing fibers from the clothes of their loved ones.
Current Commercial Uses
Today, most asbestos used in the United States is imported. Asbestos is still used in a variety of products, including:
- brake pads, clutch facings and other automotive components
- certain roofing materials and coatings
- vinyl floor tile
- imported cement pipe, cement shingles and corrugated sheeting
Former Commercial Uses
Until the 1980s, asbestos was widely used in the construction, shipbuilding, and automotive industries, among others. Asbestos was commonly used in the following products:
- boilers and heating vessels
- cement pipe
- clutch, brake, and transmission components
- conduits for electrical wire
- corrosive chemical containers
- electric motor components
- heat-protective pads
- laboratory furniture
- paper products
- pipe covering
- roofing products
- sealants and coatings
- insulation products,
- textiles (including curtains)
These materials remain in many buildings and ships built before 1975.
"Thousands of products containing asbestos that were manufactured over the years remain potential sources of exposure today"
Contaminated Commercial Products
Asbestos has been identified as a contaminant in certain vermiculite-based products, including home insulation and potting soil. Vermiculite insulation contaminated with amphibole asbestos is still a major concern, because many homes may still have vermiculite insulation in their attics and the loose material can easily be disturbed, releasing asbestos fibers into the air.
Vermiculite contaminated with amphibole asbestos was produced as late as 1990 from a mine near Libby, Montana. The mined ore was processed at more than 200 sites around the country, and contaminated vermiculite products were distributed nationally.
Homes and Buildings
Some home insulating materials produced before 1975 and used in attics and walls contained asbestos. Of particular concern is asbestos in products that are friable (easily pulverized or crumbled). Asbestos embedded in solid materials (such as wallboards) is less easily disturbed and therefore less likely to be released into the air unless it is cut, drilled, or sanded.
Many other home and building materials produced before 1975 contained asbestos, including the following:
- duct and home insulation
- fire protection panels
- fireplace artificial logs or ashes
- fuse box liners
- gypsum wallboard
- hair dryers
- heater register tape and insulation
- joint compounds
- patching and spackling compounds
- pipe or boiler insulation
- pot holders and ironing board pads
- sheet vinyl or floor tiles
- textured acoustical ceiling
- textured paints
- underlayment for flooring and carpets
The Natural Environment
Because of widespread human use of asbestos, its fibers are found in many or most parts of the environment. These background levels are extremely low, about 0.0001 fibers/cc of air.
Asbestos is also present in the environment naturally, primarily in underground rock. In most areas, the rock is too deep to be disturbed easily, so asbestos fibers are not released into the air. In some areas, such as parts of California, Virginia and New Jersey (and across the globe in Turkey and Corsica), asbestos-bearing rock is close enough to the surface that construction and other human activities can disturb it, leading to release of high concentrations of asbestos fibers into the air and dust.
The table below shows examples of sources of asbestos in the environment.
Mining, milling, and weathering of asbestos-bearing rock
Outdoor air and dust
Release of fibers from disturbed building materials (e.g., vermiculite insulation)
Manufacture, wear, and disposal of asbestos-containing products
Outdoor and indoor air and dust
Release of fibers from brake linings or crushed asbestos-containing rock used in road construction
Erosion of natural land sources, discarded mine and mill tailings, asbestos cement pipe, disintegration of other asbestos-containing materials transported by rain