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What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that occur naturally as masses of strong, flexible fibers that can be separated into thin threads and woven. It is a fibrous, silicate mineral known for its durability, heat-resistance, and chemical inertness. Asbestos has been widely used in many industrial products, including cement, brake linings, roof shingles, flooring products, textiles, and in a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire-retardant.

These naturally occurring fibers have been mined and used for about the last 100 years with peak use in the 1970's. At that time adverse health effects were widely associated with the use of asbestos. Although asbestos use has drastically declined in the United States, it continues to be used in developing countries. There are three main types of asbestos.

  1. Chrysotile (white asbestos) is the most common form of asbestos in the United States and Canada and may be the least harmful. The fibers are fine, smooth, and white.
  2. Amosite (brown asbestos) is most often used in thermal insulation systems. The fibers are brittle and straight.
  3. Crocidolite (blue asbestos) consists of straight fibers and is used less often than the other two.

Products and buildings that include asbestos are known as Asbestos Containing Materials (ACM). Anthopylite, Tremolite, and Actinolite are three other forms of asbestos that can also be found in ACM.

Is Asbestos Illegal?

Many, but not all, asbestos products have been banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission, including:

  • Flooring felt
  • Rollboard, and
  • Corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper

In addition, the regulation continues to ban the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as "new uses" of asbestos.  Manufacturers have also voluntarily limited uses of asbestos. Asbestos is most commonly found in older homes, in pipe and furnace insulation materials, asbestos shingles, millboard, textured paints and other coating materials, and floor tiles.

Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Asbestos does cause serious diseases including cancer:

  • Asbestosis (pulmonary fibrosis)
  • Mesothelioma
  • Lung cancer, and
  • Other cancers that may result include esophageal, stomach, colon, and pancreatic

Many people who have been exposed do not develop asbestosis or cancer until fifteen or more years after their contact. Smokers have a significantly higher risk of contracting an asbestos related disease than non-smokers.

How does Asbestos Enter the Environment and get Inhaled?

When people inhale air, it always contains small particles. These particles have to be filtered out because the lungs need to remain sterile. The nose and the bronchi (the airways leading down to the lungs) are the main air filters for the lungs.

Asbestos particles (called amphiboles) are long, extremely thin, microscopic glass-like fibers that are not filtered by the nose or the bronchi because they are so thin and light, which is how the fibers end up in people's lungs.

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