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Asbestos Exposure Information | What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the name given to a naturally occurring group of materials. Strong, flexible, thin and easily separated, these microscopic asbestos fibers are poor conductors of heat and do not conduct electricity. It is these natural properties that combine to make the mineral such a versatile material, used in a number of building, manufacturing and commercial applications. Unfortunately, asbestos is also a dangerous and deadly material, and has been linked to a number of cancers including mesothelioma.

Asbestos is usually thought of as a single mineral, or at least a family of minerals that is well defined and universally recognized. This is false. Instead Asbestos is a sort of catch-all term that describes a group of six commercially available mineral fibers.

The Six Types of Asbestos Mineral Fibers include:

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

The need for the catch-all "asbestos" term became apparent when exposure to the fiber and its many products proved hazardous. Lawsuits by the first wave of injured workers led to the creation of an "approved list" of mineral specimens by the EPA, negotiated by the government, asbestos manufacturers, and lawyers representing the injured. It was and still is an economic and political term, not a scientific one.

Common Traits of Asbestos

Because asbestos is a poor conductor of heat and electricity, it was at one time a very common building and manufacturing material, used in everything from automotive manufacturing to construction.

Unfortunately, the very elements, which contribute to asbestos being such a good building material, are also why it is so deadly. Once disturbed or separated, the thin, flexible asbestos fibers break easily, turning into microscopic dust particles. These fibers can hang in the air, and will stick to just about anything, including clothing and work tools. If these fibers are inhaled, the result can be a serious health problem, such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Today asbestos exposure continues to be a very real risk, and it is important to note that while countries like the United States have placed heavy regulations on its use, it continues to be used. Thousands of products and buildings contain asbestos. And any number of people working in an array of fields continue to be put at risk for asbestos exposure.

Exposure to asbestos may lead to mesothelioma.

Figure B: Amosite Asbestos, The second most common type. Photo: New York State department of Environmental Conservation

Learn more about asbestos, the dangers of asbestos exposure, and who is at risk. Contact the Meso Foundation for expert help and a free copy of the book "100 Questions & Answers About Mesothelioma."