Most people often get to learn what asbestos really is when they or their loved ones are diagnosed with mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease. Others have heard about asbestos but have no idea what it is, its uses, or even the kind of diseases it can cause.
This article aims to expound on the most intricate details or rather interesting facts about asbestos.
By 1970 more than 4 million tons of asbestos were produced each year from mines across the world.
What is Asbestos Like?
Well of course, this is a question that most people who are interested in learning more about asbestos often ask. What is asbestos? What is it really like? What are its characteristics?
Asbestos is basically a name given to a specific group of six types of naturally occurring silicate minerals. The name “asbestos” is a Greek word meaning “inextinguishable”. These minerals are characterized by long, thin fibrous crystals where each of the visible fiber constitutes of millions of tiny (microscopic) fibrils that can be easily released by abrasion and other different processes.
These minerals are easily distinguished by their colors such as white asbestos, blue asbestos, brown asbestos, and green asbestos.
Asbestos has several desirable physical properties that makes it a widely used mineral in the manufacturing and construction industries. These properties include resistance to fire, electricity, and heat, average tensile strength, excellent sound absorption, and affordability. Due to its widespread use in numerous industries, asbestos was earlier referred to as the “miracle mineral.” It was the ideal choice for brake linings, corrugated roofs, pipe and boiler insulation, floor tiles, cement, and wall tiles. The mineral is today known for the wrong reasons as prolonged exposure has been found to cause mesothelioma, a rare and deadly type of cancer that has a poor prognosis.
It is strong and so uniquely flexible that it is the only mineral which can be woven into cloth. A 1940 Life Magazine actually called it “the magic mineral”.
Types of Asbestos
There are 2 types of asbestos;
- Serpentine Asbestos
- Amphibole Asbestos
Serpentine asbestos is characterized by curly fibers. Chrysotile falls in the Serpentine category and is the only member in this category. The Amphibole class is characterized by needle-like fibers. Amosite, tremolite, crocidolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite are the only members of this class.
So how do you differentiate the six types of asbestos? Well, let’s have a look at their characteristics.
1# Chrysotile: Chrysotile asbestos is a common and popular type of asbestos as it’s widely used in various commercial and industrial applications. It’s characterized by long, curly fibers and is also known as “white asbestos.”
Chrysotile is confirmed to be one of the major causes of asbestos-related disease, including mesothelioma.
2# Amosite: Amosite is also a commonly used type of asbestos and is referred to as “brown asbestos” because of its brown/gray-colored fibers. Its excellent heat resistance properties made it a very popular fire retardant choice the manufacturing of thermal insulation products.
It’s considered as the second deadliest and its use was widely banned in the mid-1980s.
3# Tremolite: Tremolite is characterized by white, green, or gray fibers with microscopic, razor-like fibers. Because of its excellent physical properties such as strength, heat resistance, and ability to be woven into cloth, it was widely used in commercial products such as roofing materials, paints, insulation materials, sealants, and plumbing materials.
Tremolite is a known causes of various asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma as its microscopic fibers become lodged inside an individual’s airways.
It should be recognized that all forms of asbestos are considered to be hazardous to human health.
4# Crocidolite: Crocidolite is considered as the deadliest form of asbestos because of its razor-sharp, needle like fibres that tend to break easily and make it more difficulty for an individual’s body to eliminate once they are inhaled or swallowed. It’s characterized by blue fibers.
Crocidolite was used in various applications such as thermal insulation, spray-on fireproofing, and rope lagging.
5# Actinolite: Actinolite asbestos is dark in color and was combined with similar mineral vermiculite which expands when subjected to high temperatures. Together, these two minerals were used to make light-weight insulation materials. Other uses include structural fireproofing, and concrete materials used in construction.
6# Anthophyllite: Anthophyllite asbestos is a rare type of asbestos and has little history of commercial use. It is distinguished by its white, brown, or gray color. Although it was not commonly used in the production of commercial goods, it was used in various products containing minerals such as talc and vermiculite.
Where is Asbestos Found?
Asbestos may be found in any industrial or residential building that was built or refurbished before the year 2000. This was after its use was banned in developed countries. It can also be found in different products. They include;
- Wall and ceiling insulation
- Sprayed-on fire proofing and insulation in buildings
- Floor tiles
- Ceiling tiles
- Roofing shingles
- Pipes and boilers insulation
- Caulks, putties, and cement
- Joint compounds in older buildings and residential houses
- Older fume hoods and lab benches
- Siding shingles in older residential buildings
- Brake linings and clutch pads
- Natural found in soil and rocks
- Demolition sites
USA – Asbestos containing insulation product called Zonolite is believed to be in 35 million homes, schools, and office buildings.
Understanding where asbestos is found is important so as to avoid contact and possibly assess one’s risk. The symptoms of many asbestos-related illness surface after a very long time-usually 15-50 years and the prognosis is quite poor. It’s therefore important to seek medical advice fast after being exposed to this lethal mineral.
Things to Look for When Identifying Asbestos
Generally, it’s very difficult to identify material or product containing asbestos just by looking at it. Of course, there are products that contain identification marks showing the presence of asbestos. Others may not contain these identification marks, which can make it hard for an untrained eye to identify asbestos. Sometimes, even highly trained experts may not be able to identify asbestos and the suspected material must therefore be critically analyzed in the lab. Also, there are various types of asbestos and each one of them has a different appearance and properties. It therefore becomes hard to recognize the type of asbestos present in a material or product without a laboratory testing.
However, as a general rule, all buildings and certain products build before 1980 contain asbestos. The most common places to find asbestos in your home include roof shingles, insulation of the pipes, boilers, ducts, sheeting, and fireplaces, joint compound on seams between pieces of sheetrock, pipe cement, roof flashing, old floor tiles, ceiling tiles, including others.
It should be pointed out that although asbestos can be presumed from a visual inspection, its presence can only be confirmed by taking a sample and having it analysed in a laboratory.
It’s advisable to hire a professional asbestos specialist to thoroughly inspect your home for asbestos contamination.
Why is Asbestos Dangerous?
Between the year 1979 and 2001, approximately 230,000 asbestos-related deaths were recorded in the USA. Each year, asbestos kills around 4000-5000 people, a number that is higher than people killed due to road accidents (1). Research indicates that approximately 20 tradesman succumb due to past asbestos exposure each week (2). In the USA, approximately 200,000 people are said to be suffering from asbestosis, an asbestos-related disease.
Despite the known dangers, in 2009, 2 million tons of asbestos were mined worldwide. With Russia and China being the largest producers.
These statistics show just how dangerous asbestos really is.
Asbestos is one of the deadliest minerals, having claimed thousands of lives. When its fibers are inhaled or ingested, they cause a number of fatal and serious health complications such mesothelioma, (an asbestos-related cancer), asbestosis, pleural thickening, and asbestos-related lung cancer.
Sadly, the symptoms of these diseases often take time to show, which is why diagnosis is often made late. After diagnosis, it’s usually too late to treat the diseases effectively. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, although there are many treatment options available which are used to alleviate the symptoms of the disease, improve the patients’ quality of life, and extend their lifespan.
The sad fact is that many buildings and products built before asbestos was banned are still hazardous. If you suspect the presence of asbestos in your residential home, it’s highly advisable to hire a qualified asbestos removal specialist.