Expert Fact Checked

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Francis Perry Wilson, M.D. Medical Reviewer

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals made up of thin, microscopic fibers. Asbestos is heat and chemical resistant, fireproof and strong. This made asbestos a popular additive in thousands of products. Individuals with past or ongoing exposure to asbestos face health risks like mesothelioma.

01. Asbestos Overview

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral that many industries used for decades in thousands of products. For example, many construction products and machinery parts contained asbestos before the 1980s. Of the six types of asbestos, chrysotile was used most often. The mineral was popular because it is affordable, strong and fireproof.

But mounting evidence showed that exposure to asbestos came with serious health risks. This includes asbestos cancers like mesothelioma and lung cancer. The United States began increasing asbestos regulations in the 1980s. Still, there are ongoing asbestos exposure risks from older uses of the mineral.

Types of Asbestos

There are six main types of asbestos. Each type belongs to either the serpentine or amphibole asbestos mineral family. Chrysotile asbestos is the only serpentine type. Amphibole asbestos is the classification for all other types.

The six main types of asbestos are:

  • Actinolite (amphibole): In general, actinolite asbestos is dark in color. It was most often used in cement, insulation materials, paints, sealants and drywall.
  • Amosite (amphibole): This type is also known as brown asbestos. It makes up about 5% of asbestos used in the United States and is the second most common type. Products that may have contained amosite asbestos include insulation, gaskets and tiles.
  • Anthophyllite (amphibole): This type ranges in color from yellow to brown. Anthophyllite asbestos was not used often in consumer products but may have been in some cement and insulation materials.
  • Chrysotile (serpentine): This is the most commonly used type of asbestos and is also known as white asbestos. It comprises 90% to 95% of asbestos used in buildings in the United States. A wide variety of asbestos insulation and fireproofing products once used chrysotile asbestos.
  • Crocidolite (amphibole): This type is also known as blue asbestos. It is less heat resistant and used less often than other types. Products that may have contained crocidolite asbestos include cement, tiles and insulation materials.
  • Tremolite (amphibole): This type ranges in color from a milky white to a dark green. Products that may have contained tremolite asbestos include paint, sealants and plumbing materials.

All asbestos is fibrous, meaning individual microscopic fibers make up the mineral. The main difference between serpentine and amphibole asbestos is how each fiber appears. Serpentine fibers are long, curly and pliable. Amphibole fibers are short, straight, needle-like and stiff.

What Does Asbestos Look Like?

  • Some asbestos products or materials, like insulation, are more distinct than others.
  • Other products, like cement, may look the same as non-asbestos variations.
  • Raw asbestos is a nondescript, soft and fluffy material made up of microscopic fibers.
  • Individual asbestos fibers are not visible to the naked eye.
  • Color differs based on asbestos type.
  • Fiber shape differs based on asbestos mineral type.
  • Most types of asbestos fiber are sharp and needle-like.

Asbestos fibers were often used in many construction products. Common asbestos products include cement, insulation, sealants and vinyl floor tiles. Different products may have contained different forms of asbestos. For example, amosite asbestos is common in construction materials and fireproofing products.

Friable vs. Non-Friable

Asbestos materials are either friable or non-friable. Friable means the asbestos material can be crumbled into a powder by hand. Non-friable means it cannot be crumbled by hand. Typically, this is because a more solid material is binding or containing the asbestos fibers. Friable products may pose a greater health risk than non-friable asbestos.

Friable Asbestos

  • The asbestos material can crumble or break by hand. Various activities can release these fibers into the air.
  • Fibers can easily release and pose a greater health risk than non-friable asbestos.
  • Example products: Drywall, plasters, popcorn ceilings, spray-on fireproofing, spray-on insulation and thermal insulation.

Non-Friable Asbestos

  • The asbestos material cannot crumble or break by hand. Activities like sawing, sanding or cutting can disturb and release fibers.
  • If undisturbed, non-friable materials are considered to be a lower risk for health than friable materials.
  • Example products: Floor tiles, roofing felt, transite paneling, vinyl cement sheets and window glazing.

When contained, non-friable asbestos may pose a lower risk than friable asbestos. Still, individuals should treat any asbestos product as a potential health risk. Home renovations, natural disasters and other incidents can easily present asbestos exposure risks.

02. Where Asbestos Is Found

Where Does Asbestos Come From?

Naturally occurring asbestos deposits exist around the world. There are many deposits in the United States. The states along the western and eastern coasts have the most asbestos deposits.

Asbestos mining was prominent throughout the mid-to-late 1900s. The last United States asbestos mine closed in 2002. Imports from Russia are the main source of asbestos in the U.S. today.

Asbestos Mining in the United States

In 1894, U.S. asbestos mining began at the Sall Mountain area of Georgia. Over the next several decades, asbestos mining expanded across the country. The late 1960s and early 1970s were the height of asbestos mining in the United States. Shortly after, more strict federal asbestos regulations began. Asbestos mining declined, coming to a complete end in 2002.

In total, there are 331 natural U.S. asbestos deposits. Of these, at least 60 were active mines. Many asbestos mines were open-pit. This means miners started above ground and dug in to extract the mineral from an open-air pit. After this, asbestos manufacturers processed the mineral to create asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

Asbestos Mining and Milling Process

  • Asbestos is located near the earth’s surface, allowing miners to work above ground.
  • Miners remove the first layer of earth, often by blasting or drilling.
  • Asbestos miners then remove the ore from the earth.
  • Millers then separate asbestos fibers for use. The process involves crushing, screening, aspirating (vacuuming) and grading the ore.
  • Asbestos manufacturers can then incorporate asbestos fibers into a wide range of products.

The open-pit mining process removes the earth’s top layer to allow mining at the surface. In general, this mining process involves drilling and blasting. These actions often release dangerous fibers and toxins into the air. As a result, miners, workers and residents near the mines were at risk of asbestos exposure. If exposed, people may later develop malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.

By the late 1970s, workers were practicing a new mining method. Miners incorporated wetting agents into the process. Wetting the ore may help prevent the release of some asbestos fibers, which can protect workers from some exposure. Workers then crushed, sized, screened and graded the ore before shipment.

Mining Minerals Can Create Asbestos Dust

Asbestos is a mineral that occurs in natural deposits around the world. Raw asbestos is often friable, or loose and crumbling. This means the asbestos fibers can become airborne dust. Because of this, the process of mining may release asbestos dust. When this dust is airborne, people can easily inhale or ingest the asbestos particles.

The mineral often develops alongside other minerals, like talc and vermiculite. When mining for these other minerals, people may experience asbestos exposure. Asbestos may also contaminate these other minerals.

Is Asbestos Still Mined Today?

Asbestos mines are no longer in operation in the U.S. Asbestos mining reached a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As knowledge grew about the negative health effects of asbestos, production began to decrease.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reports the following general timeline for asbestos mining in the U.S.:

  • Late 1960s – early 1970s: More than 299 million pounds
  • 1987: 112 million pounds
  • 1989: 37 million pounds
  • 1993: 28 million pounds
  • 1997: 15.4 million pounds
  • 1998: 13.2 million pounds
  • 2002: Last asbestos mine closed

Although the last asbestos mine closed in 2002, other countries continue mining asbestos. There is not a full asbestos ban in the United States. The mineral is still imported under certain restrictions.

03. Asbestos Uses

What Is Asbestos Used For?

Many products had asbestos added to them, often for heat resistance and fireproofing. The use of asbestos peaked in the late 1900s. Popular asbestos products include insulation, cement, flooring, roofing and fireproof materials.

Asbestos as an additive was most common in the mid-1900s. After asbestos regulations were set in the 1980s, manufacturers began using asbestos alternatives.

Asbestos Products

Asbestos was once used in thousands of products. Regulations prevent many new uses of the mineral. Still, some products may legally contain low levels of asbestos. This includes imported products, like car brakes. Some other products contain 1% or less asbestos. If products meet this threshold, manufacturers are not required to disclose asbestos in the ingredients list.

Common asbestos products include:

Asbestos Occupations

Many occupations put workers at risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos occupations involve:

  • Manufacturing products with raw asbestos. For example, using asbestos to create asbestos cement.
  • Working with materials containing the mineral. For example, repairing vehicles with asbestos-containing brake pads.
  • Working at asbestos jobsites or areas containing the mineral. For example, teachers working in classrooms with aging asbestos ceiling tiles.

A main concern with asbestos in the workplace is airborne fibers. Individuals can then breathe in or swallow the fibers. Many jobs require workers to sand, cut or repair asbestos products. This often creates asbestos dust they can ingest or inhale.

Asbestos building materials may also face wear and tear over the years. This can expose fibers in classrooms, public buildings and other structures. Repairs or renovations may also disturb and release these asbestos fibers.

Asbestos particles are not visible to the naked eye and are odorless. As a result, many workers are unaware of their exposure.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Some individuals may be at risk of secondary (or secondhand) asbestos exposure. Secondary exposure occurs when someone comes into contact with asbestos fibers through another person. For example, an asbestos worker may unknowingly carry asbestos fibers on their clothing. Anyone who encounters them, such as family members, could then be exposed.

Blockquote Icon

“When I was a little girl, my dad worked construction. He would come home from work, his jacket covered in dust. His jacket would be white, crusty from the drywall dust that he would be sanding off the walls. Anything that I had to do outside, I liked wearing my dad’s coat. It was just, you know, unbeknownst to us that it was chock full of asbestos.”

-Heather Von St. James, Mesothelioma Survivor

Is Asbestos Still Used in the United States Today?

While the United States has limited asbestos use, there is not a full ban. Asbestos mining is no longer allowed, but some asbestos imports continue today. In 2021, 320 metric tons of asbestos were used in the U.S.

Older asbestos products and materials are still in use throughout the United States. Companies can also manufacture some products with small amounts of the mineral.

Two major areas of concern about asbestos in the United States include:

  • Older asbestos-containing products disturbed from damage, wear-and-tear or other activities. For example, buildings and homes built before the 1980s may contain legacy asbestos materials. Natural disasters, renovations and demolitions may disturb asbestos products in these buildings.
  • Small amounts of asbestos may be allowed in some consumer products. For example, paint, talc, soil and vermiculite may all contain trace amounts of asbestos. Consumer products like makeup may be affected.

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the dangers of asbestos use. Many hope this will lead to a complete federal ban on the mineral.

04. Asbestos Health Risks

What Are the Health Risks of Asbestos?

Exposure to asbestos is a health risk for workers and the general public. It can happen through primary or secondary exposure. This may take place at work, at home or in other places.

Asbestos exposure occurs when someone inhales or ingests asbestos fibers. Those fibers may then embed in some organ linings and tissues. Over time, this may lead to the development of asbestos-related diseases. These diseases include asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and other illnesses.

Asbestos Cancers

Asbestos cancers include laryngeal cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. Some studies show a link to other cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer.

The thin, needle-like asbestos fibers can easily embed in organ linings and tissues. Over time, this may later cause irritation, mutation and cancer. Long-term, heavy exposure to asbestos fibers increases the risk of asbestos cancer.

Asbestos Diseases

Asbestos diseases include asbestosis, pleural thickening, pleural plaques and other conditions. Some of these can also be an indicator of asbestos cancer.

Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers can cause these illnesses. But no amount of exposure to asbestos is safe, including short-term exposure.

05. Asbestos Safety Tips

How to Avoid the Dangers of Asbestos

Asbestos may be present in many older buildings and products. While there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, it is possible to limit exposure risks.

In general, people can mitigate the dangers of asbestos by:

  • Familiarizing themselves with what products are likely to contain asbestos
  • Leaving undisturbed asbestos materials alone
  • Seeking professional help for asbestos handling and disposal
  • Using asbestos alternatives when possible

There are general workplace guidelines for asbestos safety practices. Workers in many high-risk asbestos occupations also have specific asbestos safety guidelines. By following these guidelines, workers can help protect themselves from asbestos.

Identifying Asbestos Products

Individuals should not identify or handle asbestos products on their own. Anyone who suspects the presence of asbestos products or materials should hire professionals. These professionals are formally trained in identifying, confirming and treating asbestos.

Companies manufactured most asbestos products before the 1980s. Any item produced at that time and that faced high temperatures or friction may contain the mineral. Homeowners with houses built before 1980 should be particularly careful. Various construction materials the builders used may contain the mineral.

Current regulations consider some products lower risk if asbestos is properly contained. Health risks are greater with exposed or disturbed asbestos fibers. Asbestos in the home could become a health risk during repairs or renovations. A natural disaster or regular wear-and-tear may also disturb and release asbestos fibers.

Safely Handling and Removing Asbestos

Individuals should never touch, move or dispose of asbestos-containing material on their own. They should hire professionals who are certified in asbestos abatement. These professionals know how to properly identify, handle and dispose of asbestos materials. Individuals who improperly dispose of asbestos may be fined.

Asbestos material disposal cannot go in normal trash bins or waste sites. Specific packaging and labeling requirements must be observed before disposing of asbestos at designated locations. Other regulations and steps for asbestos abatement include:

  • Inspecting and testing ACMs to determine next steps
  • Wearing proper protective equipment, like full-face mask respirators
  • Wetting the ACMs to help contain asbestos dust
  • Encasing ACMs in plastic before transporting and burying at designated asbestos disposal sites

Asbestos professionals understand all proper removal and mitigation steps. They also have the right equipment to safely remove asbestos.

Finding Alternatives to Asbestos

Companies can choose from many asbestos alternatives instead. These alternatives have similar properties to asbestos, but they pose lower health risks. Asbestos alternatives include foam, flour and other fibrous fillers. While safer than asbestos, these alternatives may still present some health problems. Before using an asbestos alternative, individuals can review the associated benefits and risks.

Amorphous Silica Fabrics
  • Form/Composition: Woven cloth typically sold in large sheets that can be cut to the desired size
  • Qualities: Offers chemical, heat and abrasion resistance
  • Products: Incorporated in products such as fireproof gear and thermal barriers
Cellulose Fibers
  • Form/Composition: Made from plant-based materials, such as shredded newspaper, wood or leaves
  • Qualities: Chemically treated to improve heat and fire resistance
  • Products: Incorporated in products such as insulation
Polyurethane Foam
  • Form/Composition: Often available in foam blocks, foam sheets or spray-on foam
  • Qualities: Molds to fill cracks and gaps
  • Products: Acts as insulation or filler for thermal products
Flour Fillers
  • Form/Composition: All-natural combinations of products such as wheat flour, rice flour, cork flour or wood flour
  • Qualities: Often mixed with a binding agent
  • Products: Typically poured into cracks and crevices for sealing and insulating

In some cases, these alternatives may replace an asbestos-contaminated material. One such material is Johnson & Johnson (J&J)’s talc-based baby powder. Some samples of the powder tested positive for asbestos.

Since the 1980s, J&J produced a cornstarch-based powder alongside the talc-based powder. The company has been increasing cornstarch powder usage in recent years. By 2023, J&J plans to make the full global switch to cornstarch-based powders.

06. The Asbestos Cover-Up

The History of the Asbestos Industry Cover-Up: Hiding the Dangers of Asbestos

By the middle of the 20th century, asbestos use was reaching its height in the United States. At the same time, the evidence against its safety had been mounting for decades. By the 1960s, research showed a clear link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.

A few notable points in the U.S. asbestos use timeline include:

  • 1924: In a study, researchers connected asbestos to various health issues. Research continued about asbestos being a carcinogen.
  • 1929: Johns-Manville employees began to complain about health issues related to asbestos exposure. This was one of the first documented cases of employees bringing asbestos complaints to their employer.
  • 1942: The Navy documented its awareness of asbestos as a source of health issues.

Internal records show some companies were aware of asbestos-related health risks. Despite this knowledge, these companies continued using or manufacturing toxic asbestos products. J&J is one company suspected of ignoring the health risks of asbestos.

A 2022 court case led to the unsealing of some documents from the 1970s. These documents show J&J funded controversial prison experiments on asbestos. The medical experiments involved injecting inmates with asbestos and talc. Some people have questioned if J&J had personal motives for funding this study.

Many believe high profits led companies to continue using asbestos, despite its health risks. Many asbestos disease victims have filed lawsuits against known asbestos companies for their negligence.

07. What Are My Legal Rights?

Legal Options for Asbestos Exposure Victims

People who experience asbestos exposure may later develop a related illness, like mesothelioma. If so, they may be able to file a mesothelioma lawsuit or asbestos claim. Taking legal action may help these victims get compensation from negligent asbestos companies. This compensation can help ease financial burdens like lost income and treatment costs.

Individuals with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases can talk to experienced mesothelioma lawyers. Depending on details of their exposure and diagnosis, asbestos victims may have various options.

Asbestos Lawsuits

Mesothelioma victims may choose to pursue a lawsuit against a liable asbestos company. Mesothelioma lawsuit options include personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits.

Asbestos lawsuits may end in a settlement or verdict. A jury or judge decides a mesothelioma verdict and award amount. Verdict awards may result in a higher payout than a settlement.

The type of lawsuit filed will differ based on several factors. Determining factors include who is filing a lawsuit and what kind of damages they wish to pursue.

Asbestos Settlements

Mesothelioma settlements occur when parties resolve a lawsuit out-of-court. The liable party pays an agreed-upon, private amount.

Mesothelioma settlement amounts vary based on several factors. In general, asbestos settlements are not taxable under federal tax laws.

Asbestos Trust Funds

Many asbestos companies were required to create trust funds while filing for bankruptcy. During bankruptcy proceedings, these companies set aside money in trust funds for future asbestos claims. This helps protect compensation for mesothelioma victims despite the company’s financial standing.

Eligible victims may file trust fund claims against companies that caused their asbestos exposure. Lawyers at mesothelioma law firms can explain details and eligibility criteria.

Other Types of Compensation

Mesothelioma patients may be eligible for other types of compensation, too. These forms of mesothelioma compensation include:

Anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma can speak with an asbestos lawyer about their options. These victims do not need to know where or when the exposure occurred. Lawyers can help sort out the details of asbestos exposure and decide which filing option is best.

08. Common Questions

Common Questions About Asbestos

What type of asbestos is the most dangerous?

Experts believe the most harmful type of asbestos is blue (crocidolite) asbestos. These fibers are notably fine, sharp and easier to inhale than other types. Studies show that crocidolite may be responsible for more illnesses and deaths than any other type.

How small are asbestos fibers?

Asbestos fibers are microscopic and invisible to the human eye. The thin fibers range from 0.1 to 10 micrometers in length and may be straight or curled. Their small size makes it difficult to recognize asbestos exposure when it happens.

Is asbestos still used today?

Asbestos is still used globally in many products today. Under current asbestos regulations, the United States can import some of these products. Legacy asbestos is also present in many older buildings and materials. Until there is a total ban, the potential for asbestos exposure continues.

What products might cause the most asbestos problems now?

Because asbestos is not fully banned in the U.S., various products and materials may still contain asbestos. Examples include talc-based consumer products, building materials and vehicle parts. These products may expose workers, hobbyists, homeowners or residents to asbestos.