The term “asbestos” is actually used to describe a group of naturally occurring minerals to which individuals may be exposed through work, at home, or other ways. Whether you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or a loved one has recently been diagnosed, you may have learned that the malignant mesothelioma likely resulted from exposure to asbestos. While asbestos was used commonly before the late 1980s, it has since been recognized as extremely dangerous to humans. Indeed, although asbestos occurs naturally in the environment, exposure can result in cases of pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, and other types of mesothelioma.
What is asbestos, exactly, and how can it cause serious harm to humans, including causing malignant mesothelioma? The answer to that question concerns the ways in which asbestos fibers are inhaled and swallowed and the way in which they may embed in parts of a person’s body and develop into cases of mesothelioma anywhere from ten years to several decades following exposure. Asbestos is found in many different places, and it is critical to know where it may be found and how to avoid exposure to these dangerous fibers.
Defining Asbestos: Understanding Asbestos and Its Chemical Properties
How is asbestos defined? According to the National Cancer Institute, asbestos is “the name given to six minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers that can be separated into thin, durable threads for use in commercial and industrial applications.” Asbestos fibers are heat-resistant and fire-resistant, and they are also resistant to many types of chemicals. In addition, asbestos fibers cannot conduct electricity. Given these properties, asbestos was used in a wide variety of commercial and consumer products for decades, many of which still exist and may pose harm to people. Workers who manufactured or worked on products containing asbestos, or mined asbestos, have been placed at a significantly high risk of asbestos exposure.
Chemical Makeup of Asbestos
In terms of the chemical makeup of asbestos, these minerals are silicate compounds. This terminology simply means, according to the National Cancer Institute, that asbestos minerals “contain atoms of silicon and oxygen in their molecular structure.” Beyond that makeup, it is important to know that there are two general types of asbestos minerals:
- Serpentine asbestos; and
- Amphibole asbestos.
What is the difference between serpentine asbestos and amphibole asbestos? Generally speaking, serpentine asbestos is the most common form of asbestos and accounts for more than 90 percent of all asbestos used in the United States. Sometimes serpentine asbestos is also known as white asbestos or blue asbestos. Amphibole asbestos is sometimes known as brown asbestos or blue asbestos, and it is and was used less commonly in the United States. It was originally mined in South Africa. Amphibole asbestos tends to be slightly more brittle when compared with serpentine asbestos. For all intents and purposes, there is no significant difference between serpentine and amphibole asbestos in terms of malignant mesothelioma risks. Indeed, the distinction between these two types of asbestos really concerns their appearance, chemical makeup, and commercial or consumer use, but not their ability to cause malignant mesothelioma.
The National Cancer Institute provides more scientific descriptions of these two types of asbestos, which can help to provide more information about them:
“Serpentine asbestos includes the mineral chrysotile, which has long, curly fibers that can be woven. Chrysotile asbestos is the form that has been used most widely in commercial applications. Amphibole asbestos includes the minerals actinolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, and amosite. Amphibole asbestos has straight, needle-like fibers that are more brittle than those of serpentine asbestos and are more limited in their ability to be fabricated.”
Asbestos is a Known Human Carcinogen
Certain substances are identified by federal agencies as known human carcinogens so that consumers can understand the risks associated with using or being exposed to such substances. Asbestos has been identified as a known human carcinogen, meaning that it can cause cancer, by a variety of federal agencies in the U.S. including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Exposure to asbestos increases a person’s risk of developing mesothelioma and other types of cancers.
How Asbestos Has Been Used in the United States
History of Asbestos Use in America Since World War II
During much of the twentieth century—from around the time of World War II until the late 1980s—asbestos was used in a very wide variety of both commercial and consumer materials. Those materials included building supplies, motor vehicle materials, household appliances, vinyl tiling, and roof shingles, certain types of insulation, cement, and plastic, and many others. Given that asbestos is fire-resistant, it was often used in goods that needed to withstand high heat, such as paper sheets used behind wood stoves inside households, or in ships in order to provide insulation to boilers.
Even in residential homes, asbestos was used widely and commonly around steam pipes and hot water pipes as insulation. Certain textured paints and plasters also contained asbestos, including the materials used in popcorn ceilings. Beyond these uses, certain garden products that contain vermiculite also contain asbestos, as have certain crayons made with talc.
Dangers of Disturbing Asbestos Fibers Used in Workplaces and Homes
When any of these materials or objects that contain asbestos are disturbed, asbestos fibers can be released into the air. In the twenty-first century, people are most commonly exposed to asbestos when they work or live in homes or areas where asbestos was used. Most often, demolition and construction workers, as well as workers who perform home remodels or electric work or plumbing, are exposed to asbestos when pulling up vinyl tiles, cutting through plaster containing asbestos, or cutting through steam or hot water pipes insulated with asbestos. Entire demolitions can also result in the release of asbestos fibers, particularly when the building was constructed with asbestos-containing concrete.
It is important to remember that any remodeling or demolition work occurring at commercial buildings, including retail store buildings or even schools, can also release asbestos fibers into the air. When remodeling or partial demolition work is occurring at a building site like this where ordinary operations are still happening in parts of the building that are not being remodeled, workers within that building who are not handling any kind of asbestos-related materials can still be exposed since the asbestos fibers may become airborne through the remodeling work.
Asbestos can also be inhaled secondhand, such as when a worker brings home asbestos fibers on their clothes or shoes, or in their hair. Even carrying clothing home in a bag when that clothing contains asbestos and washing it with another household laundry can result in asbestos fibers being inhaled by other members of the household and later causing serious harm.
Asbestos is Partially Banned in the United States
Banning of asbestos in commercial and consumer products began in the late 1970s. At that point in time, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recognized the harms resulting from asbestos exposure and banned the use of these minerals in both gas fireplaces and wallboard patching compounds, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 1979, manufacturers who created electric hair dryers also stopped using asbestos in those products. While hair dryers have not been a major source of asbestos exposure, if one of these household appliances broke, asbestos could be released into the air. Yet into the 1980s, manufacturers continued to use asbestos in many different types of products.
In July 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of asbestos in most commercial and consumer products. However, just two years later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the EPA’s final rule banning asbestos was unlawful, and thus asbestos was only banned for new uses developed after 1989. The ban was upheld for particular products made before 1989 that included flooring felt, rollboard, corrugated paper, commercial paper, and specialty paper.
Current Uses of Asbestos
Asbestos mining largely ceased in the U.S. in 2002, but asbestos is still used in many different products, particularly those made outside the United States. Given that asbestos is still used in materials being manufactured in a number of countries, exposure may still occur in other parts of the world and in connection with materials made outside the U.S. Moreover, since asbestos has only been banned in certain products and new uses after 1989, it is still allowed in certain products in the United States.
The EPA has required regulations for schools concerning asbestos inspections and abatement so that students and school employees will not be exposed to asbestos at school or work when the materials containing asbestos have been damaged such that fibers can be released into the air.
Vermiculite-containing garden products are also still used in the United States. Although these garden products are not linked to a high risk of asbestos exposure and resulting health problems, the EPA has recommended that consumers who are using vermiculite be sure to use it either outdoors or in an area that is well ventilated. In addition, vermiculite should be kept damp so that fibers cannot be released and vermiculite dust cannot be brought into the home.
Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of malignant mesothelioma in the United States. Patients who develop malignant mesothelioma typically are diagnosed with this rare type of cancer anywhere from 10 years to up to 40 years after the initial exposure, although people of all ages can be diagnosed with mesothelioma. Indeed, even children can receive a mesothelioma diagnosis, although it is most common among older adults. About two-thirds of all mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in older adults. Mesothelioma occurs most often in the pleura (as pleural mesothelioma), although it can also occur in other parts of the body. After pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma is the most common form of malignant mesothelioma.
The National Cancer Institute explains that exposure to asbestos can also be linked to other types of cancers, including lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, ovarian cancer, stomach cancer, cancer of the pharynx, and colorectal cancer.
Asbestos can also cause many other serious diseases and conditions even when it does not cause mesothelioma or another type of cancer. In particular, mesothelioma has been linked to the following types of diseases and conditions:
- Asbestosis, which is inflammation of the lungs that can result in scarring and serious symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath;
- Pleural plaques, which can involve scar tissue and thickening of areas of the pleura;
- Pleural thickening; and
- Pleural effusions involve the buildup of fluid in the linings of the lungs and chest cavity.
Naturally Occurring Asbestos in the United States and Risk Assessment
Even though asbestos is not used widely in commercial or consumer goods in the United States, it is important to remember that your home or workplace could contain asbestos, and it is important to take precautions if you are undertaking any kind of renovation work or disturbing any materials that could contain asbestos. Likewise, if you work in an older building where renovation work is done, it is important to know that you could be exposed, and you should take precautions.
Although scientists and healthcare providers cannot pinpoint the specific amount of asbestos to which a person must be exposed to develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, it is important to focus on the fact that any amount of exposure to asbestos could have far-reaching health effects, even a one-time exposure that is relatively limited.
While you can certainly take precautions to avoid exposure to asbestos, it is important to keep in mind that most people are exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives in minimal amounts since it can be found in the air, in the water, and sometimes in the soil. You should know that, although even a single exposure to asbestos at low levels could potentially lead to malignant mesothelioma, many mesothelioma cases are linked to extensive and prolonged exposure to asbestos in workplaces or in the home through secondhand exposure. Please contact our asbestos lawyers for legal information.