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What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a natural fiber taken from minerals that are mined in a number of countries. These silicate fibers add strength to various substances, make items fire-resistant and protect products from chemical erosion. Asbestos fibers are also an excellent insulation for homes and businesses. While some of this usage is in the past, asbestos continues to have a myriad of practical applications and is still used around the world.

There are six kinds of asbestos: anthophyllite, tremolite, amosite, crocidolite, actinolite and chrysolite. Some produce what is known as amphibolic fibers, the cause of many asbestos tumors in humans. These fibers are particularly strong and can penetrate tissue, staying in place and eventually causing cancer in some people. Chrysotile is used most often and is less dangerous, although it can also cause problems.

History of Asbestos

The value of asbestos has been known for thousands of years, but it became more popular in the 1900s. Because the fibers were plentiful and affordable, asbestos was used by a number of U.S. industries, particularly during WWII and up to the ’60s and ’70s. The fibers were used in textiles because they were flexible and easy to weave into cloth. Also, asbestos made the cloth fire-resistant, so firefighters, soldiers and even children wore these fabrics to keep them safe.

The average American family used dozens of asbestos products. Even cigarette filters and curlers contained asbestos. Pots and pans often contained asbestos as well, so the family dinner was cooked in asbestos materials. At Christmas time, families celebrated by decorating their trees with asbestos-containing artificial snow. In the morning, they got into cars whose brake linings depended on asbestos to function properly. Every day, Americans lived surrounded by asbestos and were happy with the convenience these products provided them.

The dangers of asbestos were not widely acknowledged until shipyard workers who had handled huge amounts of insulation during WWII started falling ill. By the 1970s, a health care nightmare had blossomed, and the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, seriously limiting the use of asbestos. These restrictions were loosened in 1990, but the American populace had little interest in using asbestos at that time, choosing products that did not contain the mineral instead. Many manufacturers made the financial decision to stop their use of asbestos due to lack of market demand.

Common Asbestos Building Products

In older homes, many products may contain dangerous asbestos levels. For instance, some old linoleum was manufactured with paper backing that was rife with asbestos. Since the paper is quite friable, disturbing this old flooring can endanger workers and inhabitants.

Vermiculite was used to make items fire-resistant, particularly insulation. Any older structure or item that contains vermiculite should be considered laden with asbestos until proven to be safe.

Ceiling coatings, such as the infamous “popcorn” ceiling, should be considered to contain asbestos. As long as this substance is intact, residents should not be in danger from it, but if it crumbles into disrepair or workers try to remove it, the asbestos fibers are a danger for anyone in breathing distance.

Asbestos is often in the cement pipes found in individual homes and in a city’s water supply system. Again, the asbestos becomes dangerous if the pipes begin to crumble, something that is inevitable when enough time has passed.

Other asbestos substances found in older homes include insulation on items like boilers and tanks, fireproofing applied in spray form on walls and ceilings, and drywall. Although modern construction uses much less asbestos, some common items still contain this dangerous substance.

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