What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is both a commercial and legal term that refers to a class of minerals that form long, thin, heat-resistant fibers.
Asbestos has gone by many names historically. Some called it “white gold.” Others dubbed it the “magic mineral.” It was long viewed as a modern marvel for its durable, heat-resistant properties. Industrially, asbestos has been used for everything from drywall to roofing to ship piping to clothing to auto parts.
Today, however, we know it to be a killer.
In all places were asbestos has been mined, transported, processed or used, people have gotten sick and died. The surrounding environment has become polluted. At Jeffrey Glassman Injury Lawyers, our mesothelioma lawyers recognize asbestos for what it is: A carcinogen.
Mesothelioma is the name of the latent terminal cancer wherein the only known cause is exposure to asbestos.Identifying Asbestos
As the National Cancer Institute notes, “asbestos” isn’t one single substance.
Rather, asbestos is the name we use to identify a group of half a dozen minerals that occur naturally in the environment that are identified as bundles of fiber. These fibers can be separated into threads that are thin, but durable.
The fibers were sought after as building materials because they are:
- Resistant to heat
- Resistant to fire
- Resistant to chemicals
- Don’t dissolve in water
- Don’t conduct electricity
- Have no detectable smell or taste
Asbestos minerals are comprised of silicate compounds. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, this means their chemical makeup includes oxygen and silicon atoms. They are generally divvied up into two major groups:
- Serpentine Asbestos. The fibers of serpentine asbestos, which includes chrysotile, are curly and long and can be easily woven. Sometimes referred to as “white asbestos.”
- Amphibole Asbestos. These fibers are described as needle-like and straight and tend to be more brittle. Subgroups of amphibole asbestos include amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. Sometimes referred to as “brown asbestos” or “blue asbestos.”
These fibers are found naturally occurring in areas where the original rock mass has undergone some type of metamorphism, such as in the Ural Mountains of Russia and in the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S.
Chrysotile is the most commonly-occurring form – and the most routinely used for industrial purposes.How Does Asbestos Enter the Environment?
While small amounts of asbestos may exist naturally in the air and water, the vast majority of asbestos humans encounter is the result of mining, transporting, manufacturing and processing that results in asbestos being used in products.
Asbestos won’t dissolve in water, but it also won’t move through soil. As the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (a division of the CDC) reports, these compounds aren’t broken down, they are at risk of being breathed into the lungs.
Asbestos might also be consumed in drinking water if drinking water pipes contain asbestos and erode or if deposits in the nearby ground have made their way into the water supply.Where is Asbestos Found?
Asbestos was widely used in the U.S. and other industrialized nations in a wide range of products throughout the 20th Century. Although the use of asbestos has fallen substantially since the 1970s, it is not formally banned in the U.S.
Mining of asbestos in the U.S. was halted in 2002, according to the CDC, but the material continues to be imported for various purposes and is still used in numerous construction materials.
Previous commercial uses of asbestos included:
- Boilers and heating vessels
- Electric motor components
- Paper products
- Pipe covering
- Roofing products
- Cement pipe
- Heat protective pads
- Sealants and coatings
- Insulation products
- Textiles (including curtains)
- Caulking and joint compound
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- Siding shingles
- Walls and floors
- Insulation to cover furnaces
Currently, asbestos continues to be used for:
- Vehicle clutches
- Brake pads
- Roofing materials
- Vinyl tiles
- Corrugated sheeting
- Cement pipes
Asbestos remains a presence in older homes and buildings, though generally may not pose a significant hazard unless it is disturbed through renovation or demolition. Disturbing these materials results in asbestos fibers being released into the air, which can result in human exposure.The Danger of Asbestos
Despite the fact asbestos is naturally-occurring, there is no amount of asbestos exposure that is safe. Individual fibers are generally too small to be seen with a naked eye. But as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration notes, breathing these fibers – particularly over time – results in a build-up of scar-like tissue in the lungs and in the lining of the stomach that can cause:
Although chrysotile asbestos has gotten a reputation for somehow being less hazardous than other forms, the reality is we know chrysotile too has the potential to cause mesothelioma in humans.
The ATSDR explains that fibers are dangerous in one of two major ways:
- Inhaling. Asbestos fibers are breathed into the lungs, where they are deposited in the air passages and on cells that comprise the lungs. These fibers may be removed from the lungs by being carried away or coughed up. If they are coughed up via mucus in the throat, they are swallowed into the stomach. However, some of the fibers are deposited deep in the lungs and may never be removed. This can cause pleural mesothelioma.
- Swallowing. Asbestos fibers are swallowed either via water or moved from the throat to your lungs. These fibers will move from your stomach to your intestines and will likely be excreted during normal bowel movements. However, some may penetrate the cells that line your stomach and get trapped. This can cause peritoneal mesothelioma.
Those with the heaviest exposure typically worked in asbestos injuries, such as insulation or shipbuilding, or lived with a family member who did. Family members could be exposed to high levels of asbestos just by the fibers being transported home from the workers’ clothing. Even a daily hug, breathing in those fibers on the clothing, proved to be enough years later to cause asbestosis or mesothelioma.
OSHA reports that even low-level, short-term exposure to asbestos has been proven to cause mesothelioma in humans. Further, epidemiological evidence has shown that all types of asbestos have been proven to cause this form of terminal cancer, which is latent and may be generally asymptomatic for decades until it is in the late stages.
For this reason, the cases of asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by asbestos are related to asbestos exposure that happened many years ago.
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