Asbestos was used widely in the industrial and construction industries throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Hailed for its heat-resistance and versatility, asbestos was added to hundreds of different products and was used in the construction of skyscrapers, family homes, ships, automobiles and aircrafts. It wasn’t until asbestos had been used extensively that regulators took notice of the damaging effects the tiny fibers had on those who were exposed. Today, many people continue to be exposed to the dangerous material and lawsuits are still being filed by those who suffered the most damage.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals found in deposits in the earth. Asbestos has a controversial history. At the height of its usage in the 20th century, asbestos was mined from large deposits and used in numerous industrial and commercial products.
Its strength and heat-resistant qualities made it especially useful in home construction, shipbuilding and other industrial areas. The tiny, microscopic fibers could also be woven into fabrics and used to make fire-resistant clothing and safety equipment.
Asbestos’ versatility helped make the material a popular addition to numerous products; but after several decades of heavy use, it became clear asbestos could cause serious adverse health effects in people exposed to the small, fibrous minerals.
What does asbestos look like?
Asbestos fibers look different depending on the type of mineral. Chrysotile asbestos, for example, has soft, curly fibers that are white in color, while amosite asbestos has sharp, straight fibers that are brown in color.
Regardless of the type, individual asbestos fibers are microscopic and you can’t tell if a product contains asbestos just by looking at it – unless it’s labeled. To be sure a product contains asbestos, it must be tested. Asbestos testing should be done by a trained professional, though sample testing kits are available for those who want to take on the potentially dangerous task themselves.
Where do you find asbestos?
Asbestos was used in a wide variety of building, construction and other industrial products beginning in the late 19th century and continuing well into the 20th century. Asbestos was used in the home, aboard Navy ships, in cars and trucks and in fire-resistant clothing, to name just a few.
Today, asbestos is still found in some of these places, though its use has dramatically decreased since the late 1970s.
In mines throughout the world
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in deposits throughout the world. The minerals were mined from these deposits and sold for use in products worldwide. Many of these mines are still in operation today.
There are six different types of asbestos, some of which are found in particular areas of the world. For example, crocidolite asbestos was mined mainly in Western Australia, Bolivia and South Africa.
The town of Asbestos, located in Quebec, Canada, was home to the world’s largest asbestos mine, the Jeffrey Mine, until it halted operations in 2011.
Asbestos was used abundantly in shipyards and aboard ships in the 20th century, especially during the world wars and the Korean War. It was used as a heat insulator and fireproof material to insulate hulls, boilers and pipes of military vessels. It could even be found in products used in the galley where crew members cooked and ate. As a result, millions of shipyard workers were exposed to asbestos during that time, and exposure continued into the mid-1970s as old ships were decommissioned.
In the home
Asbestos was used in many different aspects of home construction between the 1940s and 1970s. If you live in a house built before 1980, chances are there is asbestos somewhere. This isn’t always a cause for concern, however. Asbestos is only dangerous if the fibers go airborne; undisturbed, undamaged asbestos products usually do not pose any danger to those around it.
Some examples of products used in home construction included:
- Siding and roofing shingles
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Glue that adheres floor tiles to concrete or wood sub-floors
- Popcorn ceiling tiles
- Blown-in attic insulation; insulation containing vermiculite
- Hot water and steam pipe coating
- Textured paint and patching materials
After the September 11 attacks
Asbestos was used during the construction of the World Trade Center towers. When the towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, asbestos fibers were released into the air as the towers fell and the surrounding area was blanketed with an asbestos coating. Up to 70,000 people took part in the rescue and massive cleanup efforts at Ground Zero, where about 1,000 tons of asbestos was thought to have settled. Six years after the attacks, five first responders had died of cancer within months of each other.
Products contaminated with asbestos
Asbestos was often mined near other naturally occurring minerals used in many consumer products, including talc. Talc is used in numerous cosmetic and hygienic products, including baby powder, face powder, eye shadow, condoms and much more. It wasn’t unusual to find asbestos in consumer products made with talc before federal law required those products to be asbestos-free in the 1970s.
Another product found to contain traces of asbestos was vermiculite. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral found near asbestos mines. Vermiculite is used most often for insulation.
A large vermiculite mine located in Libby, Montana supplied more than 70% of the material sold in the US from 1919 to 1990. It was also located near an asbestos mine. It is assumed that all Libby vermiculite, which was used in the majority of vermiculite insulation in the US at the time and sold under the brand name Zonolite, was contaminated with asbestos.
Other places Asbestos is found
Asbestos was not limited to ship and building construction. Millions of workers are believed to have been exposed to asbestos at their jobs, and millions more are thought to have been exposed second-hand by family members who brought the minerals home from work. The National Institute of Health estimates that between 1940 and 1978, 11 million people were exposed to the toxic substance.
The following are only a few examples of the dozens of occupations that put workers at risk of exposure:
- Auto mechanics
- Aircraft mechanics
- Railroad workers
- Oil refinery workers
- Textile operators
Just some of the products that contained or still contain asbestos include:
- Automobile clutches, brakes and brake pads
- Insulation and insulating board
- Adhesives and sealers, including mastic adhesives
- Corrugated paper, millboard and rollboard
- Paints and plasters
- Ironing board covers, iron rests and stove mats
- Protective clothing, such as aprons, dust masks and gloves
- Boilers, furnaces and heating ducts
- Fake snow
- Blankets, yarn and other textiles
How is asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos is dangerous if inhaled because the fibers can stay in the lungs for long periods of time and cause serious lung diseases, including asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
There is a long latency period between exposure of asbestos and the development of these serious diseases. It often takes decades before symptoms begin to develop. The more asbestos a person is exposed to, the more likely he or she is to develop a serious lung disease.
The presence of asbestos isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm, however. Asbestos is only dangerous if the microscopic fibers go airborne. Fake snow containing asbestos, for example, is extremely dangerous to inhale, as is insulation that is not wrapped or covered. But undisturbed asbestos is not necessarily dangerous.
Friable vs. Non-Friable
A friable asbestos-containing material is defined as any material that contains more than 1% asbestos and can be pulverized, crumbled or reduced to powder by the pressure of a human hand. Friable asbestos products are especially dangerous because they can easily release the fibers into the air when disturbed.
Non-friable products can also become friable, like when a building is demolished or a product that was glued into place is removed.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is the most serious asbestos-related disease. It is an aggressive form of cancer that affects the protective layer surrounding the lungs, heart or abdomen. The most common form of the disease is pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining surrounding the lungs. A person’s chance of developing mesothelioma increases by the amount and length of time of exposure.
Mesothelioma is often difficult to diagnose because early symptoms of the disease are mild and can mimic other common conditions. When a diagnosis is made, the disease is usually in the advanced stages. A person’s survival rate can be affected by many factors, including age and overall health. The American Cancer Society estimates the five-year survival rate of mesothelioma is between 5% and 10%.
Cases of mesothelioma spiked in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but about 3,000 new cases are still diagnosed every year. Between 2001 and 2010, mesothelioma claimed the lives of nearly 27,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic those of other conditions and do not develop until long after a person’s initial exposure to asbestos. On average, it can take 10 to 40 years for symptoms to develop after a person was exposed.
Mesothelioma can occur in the chest or stomach.
Symptoms of mesothelioma of the chest include:
- Pain in the side of the chest or lower back
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Weight loss
- Trouble swallowing
- Swelling of the face and arms
Symptoms of mesothelioma of the stomach can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Swelling or fluid in the abdomen
- Weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
Asbestosis occurs when the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue. People who get asbestosis are usually exposed to asbestos over long periods of time. Asbestosis puts a person at high risk for developing mesothelioma.
Is asbestos banned in the US?
While the use of asbestos in many US products was banned in the 1970s by the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies, it is still used legally today in many industrial products.
Beginning in the early 1970s, the EPA and Consumer Protection Safety Commission began restricting the use of asbestos in certain products, including spray-applied surfacing materials, pipe insulation that is friable (easily crumbles) when dry, artificial fireplace embers and wall patching compounds.
Then, in 1989, the EPA issued a “final rule” banning most asbestos-containing products, but that rule was overturned in 1991 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Today, asbestos is still banned in certain products, including:
- Corrugated paper
- Commercial paper
- Specialty paper
- Flooring felt
- Pipe insulation
- Spray-applied surfacing materials
- Artificial fireplace embers
- Wall patching compounds
- Any “new use” in products not historically containing asbestos
Thanks to the 1991 appeal of the EPA’s final rule, many industrial products still contain asbestos. Some of the products that still contain asbestos include:
- Cement corrugated sheets
- Cement flat sheet
- Pipeline wrap
- Roofing felt
- Vinyl floor tile
- Cement shingle
- Automatic transmission components
- Disk brake pads
- Roof and non-roofing coatings
How do you get rid of asbestos?
If you find your home contains asbestos, there are many things to consider when repairing or removing it. First, it’s important to determine if the asbestos is a problem. If the materials are in good condition, the best thing to do is to leave them alone. Asbestos becomes dangerous when the material is disturbed or begins to deteriorate and the fibers go airborne.
If you suspect a material in your home contains asbestos, check regularly for tears, abrasions or water damage. Material that would crumble easily in your hands or that has been sawed, scraped or sanded into powder is also more likely to create a health hazard.
If you find damaged asbestos material in your home or if you’re planning to remodel, there are two types of corrections: repair and removal.
Repairing an asbestos product
Repairing usually involves sealing the asbestos material with a sealant or covering it with a wrap or jacket. Both sealing and covering prevent fibers from releasing into the air.
Repairs can be either major or minor. In general, any damaged area bigger than the size of your hand is a major repair.
Repairing an asbestos problem is usually less costly than removing it, but can make later removal more difficult and expensive if it becomes necessary.
Removing an asbestos product
Removing asbestos material increases the risk of releasing fibers into the air and should only be done by a trained professional. Asbestos removal, or abatement, is usually the last option considered in most situations unless the material is damaged beyond repair or renovations make removal necessary.
Removing asbestos material is the most expensive method and improper removal can actually increase the health risk to you and your family. It is important to hire a qualified professional trained in the proper and safe removal of asbestos.
Hiring a trained professional
Because of the health risks asbestos poses, it is important to hire professionals who are trained in identifying damaged materials and removing or repairing them.
Asbestos Inspectors can safely take samples of materials and test whether or not they contain asbestos. The inspector can also describe the extent of the damage and give recommendations on how to correct it.
Corrective-Action Contractors repair or remove the asbestos materials from your home.
It is important to hire professionals who are experienced in safely handling, repairing or removing asbestos materials. Check with the Better Business Bureau before hiring a firm to see if it has had any safety violations or legal actions filed against it. Check credentials carefully, ask for references and get a cost estimate from several different firms.
Be on the lookout for misleading claims: unnecessary removals are a waste of money and improper removals pose a health risk for you and your family.
Follow local laws
Always check with your local and state health departments, regional EPA office and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) regional office to find out what regulations are in place regarding proper asbestos removal and disposal in your area.
These offices may also have a list of local contractors who are trained in removing or repairing asbestos materials.
Are asbestos-related lawsuits still being filed?
People affected by occupational exposure to asbestos have been filing lawsuits against the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products for decades. Today, those lawsuits continue to be filed. In fact, litigation related to asbestos is the longest-running mass tort in US history. In a 2011 report, the Government Accountability Office estimated $37 billion had been set aside by companies to pay claims since 1988.
If you or someone you love was exposed to asbestos and developed mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer, do not hesitate to take action. Each state has its own statute of limitation for filing an asbestos-related lawsuit. Don’t miss out on your chance for financial compensation and to hold those responsible accountable for your pain and suffering.
Contact the lawyers at Hood National Law Group today at 1-800-214-1010 for a free case evaluation or use the form on the right-hand side of your screen.
Asbestos Facts page updated on June 30, 2016