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Asbestos and Prevention: About 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. These natural properties combine to make the mineral a versatile material, used in a number of building, manufacturing, and commercial applications. Unfortunately, asbestos is also a dangerous and deadly material that has been linked to mesothelioma.

Asbestos is usually thought of as a single mineral or 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 are actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, crocidolite, and tremolite. The two basic forms of asbestos fibers are Amphiboles Asbestos, a straight and needle-like form of asbestos (actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, and tremolite are considered amphiboles fibers), and serpentine asbestos, a curled and more pliable for of asbestos (chrysotile is considered a cerpentine fiber).

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 that 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 become airborne and continue to linger in the air for hours, even days. They can also attach to nearby objects, including clothing and work tools. If these fibers are inhaled or injested, the result can be a serious health problem, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, as well as other cancers.

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 is still present and continues to be used. Thousands of products and buildings contain asbestos. Any number of people working in an array of fields continue to be put at risk of asbestos exposure.

Other Mined Minerals Linked to Mesothelioma

Because of its non-scientific origin, the term “asbestos” does not include all possible fibrous mineral forms of impure magnesium silicate that behave like asbestos. While they may not be considered “asbestos,” there are many other fibrous minerals that are just as carcinogenic, if not more so. Just a few of the more well-known examples include:

Taconite: There are Taconite mines in the United States, and while Taconite is not on the asbestos list, its carcinogenic track record qualifies it as a health hazard.
Erionite: Erionite is another fiber that is missing from the list and was recently identified as a particularly toxic asbestiform fiber. Erionite was found in the home building materials used in Turkish villages of Karain and Tuzkoy. It has been implicated in the deaths of hundreds of villages of the years. It is no longer disputed that Erionite causes mesothelioma and belongs on the registry of asbestos-like minerals. Deposits of Erionite have been found in San Bernardino County, California and it may well be found elsewhere in the world.
Vermiculite: Used in insulation and also as a landscaping and gardening material, vermiculite has recently been identified as a possible carcinogen with links to mesothelioma.

The list of cancer-causing mineral fibers that should be classified as asbestos is still growing.

The History of Asbestos

Marco Polo encountered asbestos in China where it was called salamander’s wool. The ancients had many names for asbestos, calling it "mountain leather," "incombustible linen," "rock floss," and “lapis asbestos”. Defined by its uses, the strange material could be braided into rope or used as insulation. The use of oil lamps for illumination was a major application before the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Once braided, asbestos could be turned into a wick that was both indestructible and cheap. Charlemagne had a napkin made from asbestos that he would purify by throwing into a fire.

At the dawning of the industrial age, machinery, steam, and fire became catalysts for the more widespread use of asbestos. By the 1860’s asbestos began appearing as insulation in the United States and Canada. Thousands of different uses for asbestos appeared by the middle of the 20th century. These included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, drywall joint compound and on and on.

For all its wonderful properties, early asbestos research also proved that this naturally occurring material could be linked to a number of respiratory diseases. Early citings linking asbestos to respiratory disease, mesothelioma and other cancers included :

• The Roman historian Pliny the Elder noted that the slaves who worked in the asbestos mines were less healthy than other slaves. He recommended that such slaves not be purchased since they would “die young”.
• Strabo, a 1st century geographer, also observed the rise of health problems among asbestos workers. Since it was noted that asbestos exposure caused primarily a respiratory disease, Pliny the Elder suggested the use of a respirator made of transparent bladder skin to protect workers from asbestos dust.
• Modern medicine first documented an asbestos-related death in 1906. Soon afterwards medical reports began to identify a mystery tumor, and insurance companies began to cut their coverage of asbestos workers.
• The term mesothelioma entered the medical literature in 1931 when it was identified by Klemperer and Rabin.
• By the 1940’s mesothelioma was being associated with asbestos exposure. Still, at the urging of industry, public authorities and the medical establishment continued to resist recognizing the connection between mesothelioma and asbestos.
• Finally, the link became incontrovertible with a 1960 article published in Lancet entitled "Primary Malignant Mesothelioma of the Pleura."

During this time, the growing awareness of the connection between asbestos exposure and asbestosis and mesothelioma eventually brought some government regulation. (Contrary to popular belief, to this day asbestos has not been banned in the U.S., though it has in numerous other countries.) It also brought litigation. During trial discovery proceedings it became clear that the asbestos industry had known about the hazards of the product for decades. Moreover, they had conspired to hide the facts from both their workers and the consumers of their products. This disregard for the health and safety of both employees and consumers led to thousands of successful lawsuits and settlements against asbestos vendors. Over time this led to over sixty companies seeking refuge in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

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