The term asbestos is translated from a Greek adjective that means inextinguishable. The Greeks praised asbestos as the miracle mineral because of its soft texture and superb resistance to heat. A naturally occurring mineral that is found in the soil or in various rock formations, asbestos exists in a variety of colors, forms, and chemical compositions. Asbestos, in one form or another, was mined countries around the world.
In addition to its resistance to heat, asbestos also withstands damage from electricity and chemicals; asbestos also possesses superior sound absorption properties and a high tensile strength. Because of the many desirable properties of asbestos, the substance became a widely utilized material in the construction and manufacturing industries near the close of the 19th century—use of the popular material declined dramatically in the 1970s when asbestos associated health risks became widely known.
Types of Asbestos
There are six types of asbestos that are classified as: chrysotile; amosite; crocidolite; tremolite; anthophyllite, and actinolite. One of the chief differences between chrysotile asbestos and other forms of the mineral is the shape and length of the fibers. While chrysotile fibers are curled and flexible, most others are brittle and needle shaped. Asbestos fibers are not water soluble, do not degrade over time, and are too small to be seen by the naked eye.
Because of its flexible fibers, chrysotile asbestos is the type most widely used by industry; it is estimated that chrysotile asbestos accounts for approximately 95% of the construction materials found in older residential, institutional, and industrial structures today. Chrysotile asbestos can be found in building materials such as:
- Siding and roofing
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- Pipe insulation
- Rope seals for boilers
- Electrical insulation and more
Human Exposures to Asbestos Should be Limited
Because lung inhalation exposures to microscopic, airborne asbestos fibers are strongly associated with a risk to health, such exposures should be avoided. Asbestos causes asbestosis as well as the cancer a malignant mesothelioma. Exposure to asbestos fibers can occur in a wide variety of ways. Asbestos in the soil or rock formations can result in airborne exposures if the material is disturbed. Individuals who reside in areas near an asbestos mine may be exposed to airborne asbestos fibers, and air quality samples should be examined closely and on a continual basis to ensure that no such contamination exists. All forms of airborne asbestos fiber exposure should be guarded against through the use of air filtration masks or other types of breathing devices in areas such as:
- Construction demolition or home remodeling sites: Many older structures may house asbestos containing materials. When fractured, these materials can release significant amounts of microscopic asbestos fibers into the air.
- Landfills or other waste collection sites: Asbestos containing materials or products are often illegally deposited in town dumps or similar sites. These asbestos materials are oftentimes in a disturbed or fractured state, and all individuals should protect themselves against asbestos fiber inhalation at such locations.
- Manufacturing facilities: Many manufacturing sites, whether closed or operational, may contain asbestos fibers. When in doubt about the presence of asbestos, breathing protection should always be worn. Additionally, any clothing that may become contaminated with asbestos must be handled with great care, and to be safe, discarded. Industrial hygiene practices are better today, but in the past, workers at the plants and factories that made asbestos products were often the victims of the material. The long latency period of mesothelioma means that the cancer shows up decades after asbestos exposure.
- The home: Many older and some new household appliances may contain asbestos. Asbestos has been found in such items as toaster ovens, older model electric stoves, etc. Asbestos has also been discovered in children’s toys, hair rollers, certain types of caulks and sealers, etc.
Be aware of asbestos hazards at home and at the workplace.