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Asbestos 101 - Everything You Need to Know About The Deadly Mineral

By Tim Povtak
Published: August 23, 2016 | Last updated: February 26, 2019 06:57:41
Key Takeaways

The threat of asbestos exposure is still real in America, and most of it comes from products that were produced decades ago.

Source: Dreamstime

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral once coveted for its heat resistance, insulating properties and tensile strength.

It was versatile enough to be woven into fabric, mixed with cement, and utilized with thousands of different products. It was used extensively throughout the construction industry.

It made everything better – or so we thought through much of the 20th century. Unfortunately, asbestos is also toxic, making it a danger to anyone who came in contact with the mineral.


What Does Asbestos Look Like Today?

Where you live, work and play, asbestos can take many forms. There are more than 3,000 different products today that contain asbestos. The actual toxic asbestos fibers are microscopic and look different depending upon its use. The products generally are most dangerous when they look crumbly, frayed and dusty.

The only way to positively identify asbestos in a product is to have a certified inspector test a sample. It helps knowing which products usually contain asbestos and their age.

Where Can Asbestos Be Found?

Commercial and residential construction before 1980 are likely to have asbestos products throughout. For example:

  • Roofing materials
  • Floor tiles and glue
  • Caulking and putty for windows
  • Downspouts and gutters
  • Electrical switches and outlets
  • Water tank
  • Fireplace and furnace
  • Appliances

(Learn about the Top 5 Ways for Construction Workers to Avoid Asbestos Exposure on the Job.)

What About Insulation?

More than any other role, asbestos in America was used as an insulator. And even though asbestos is hardly used today in new construction, the insulation is the most lingering asbestos problem. As an insulator, it was used to conserve energy, resist heat, reduce the threat of fire, lower sound volume and reduce electrical conductivity.

The five main insulation categories include:

  • Attic insulation: Air conditioning, heating and ventilation systems in attics use this type of loose-fill insulation, which is dangerous to anyone venturing into the attic.
  • Pipe insulation: Asbestos insulation helps control temperatures. If you see crumbling materials around older pipes, be careful to not breathe the fumes.
  • Block insulation: A home or business could be insulated better and made stronger by mixing asbestos into the cement in the concrete foundation.
  • Wall insulation: This was used to control the temperatures within a structure. Asbestos was typically mixed with the drywall.
  • Spray insulation: This type was used everywhere by builders. It provided thermal protection and was easy to apply on ceilings and walls.

(Learn 5 Ways for Electricians to Avoid Asbestos Exposure.)

Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?

When these microscopic asbestos fibers get into the air, they can be inhaled or ingested unknowingly. They become lodged in the thin membrane surrounding the thoracic or abdominal cavities, then cause inflammation and scarring.

Eventually, that scarring can lead to a number of serious illnesses, including asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. It can take as many as 50 years after the inhalation of asbestos fibers before a person is diagnosed with mesothelioma.


(Find out How to Reduce the Risk of Occupational Cancer.)

Are There Different Types of Asbestos?

There are six types of asbestos:

  • Chrysotile
  • Amosite
  • Crocidolite
  • Tremolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Actinolite

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies the six types of asbestos carcinogenic. No amount of exposure is considered safe.

An estimated 90 percent of the asbestos used commercially is known as chrysotile asbestos. Its fibers are longer and curlier than the other asbestos types.

Wasn’t Asbestos Banned in the US?

Fifty-eight countries banned asbestos, but neither the United States nor Canada has prohibited the substance. It is highly regulated, and its use has dropped significantly. Unfortunately, with the long latency period (20-50 years) between exposure and diagnosis, the rate of mesothelioma has not yet declined.

Where Is the Biggest Threat Today from Asbestos?

The biggest threat is from the asbestos products put in place 30-40 years ago. As they have aged, its asbestos fibers have become airborne. Anyone renovating, remodeling or demolishing an older home or business must be especially careful. Any pounding, sawing, nailing or disturbing an older asbestos product raises the risk of exposure. A fireman close to a burning building, for example, must wear a protective breathing apparatus.

(See Q&A: Firefighters and Asbestos to learn more.)

The threat of asbestos exposure is still real in America.


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Written by Tim Povtak

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Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer and journalist with more than three decades of experience. He spent most of his career at the Orlando Sentinel before moving on to AOL. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. He has served as a guest analyst on both television and radio.

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