If you’re here, you’ve probably heard that homes and commercial products for home use often contained asbestos in the past, and now they don’t. This is because scientists and medical professionals discovered how dangerous asbestos could be for humans.
Exposure to asbestos can put you at great risk for developing several severe, incurable ailments. Let’s take a look at what exactly asbestos is, and what it does to cause this.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral possessing qualities that make it an excellent construction material. However, the fibers are readily airborne and inhaled. They embed in the lung tissue causing damage that prevents the lungs from moving properly. Asbestos is also a known human carcinogen.
Asbestos Is a Naturally-Occurring Mineral
When told to think of toxic materials, many people’s minds may go straight to manufactured chemicals. However, that’s not the case here!
Asbestos is actually a name given to six different, naturally occurring minerals—actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, crocidolite, and tremolite.
These minerals were used because they are all resistant to electricity, heat, water, and corrosion. This made them extremely useful and popular in many fields, notably construction.
Asbestos can be found all over the world, either in large deposits of their own, or contaminating deposits of other minerals.
While asbestos can be found worldwide, its three primary exporters are China, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Types of Asbestos
Since asbestos is a name for six different minerals with similar properties, there are in fact six different types of asbestos.
Of these six asbestos types, chrysotile asbestos is the only one in the serpentine family, meaning it has curly fibers set together in a layered structure.
All five other types of asbestos are in the amphibole family, meaning that their structures are thin, sharp, and straight, making them easy to inhale.
Actinolite is a dark-colored asbestos most commonly found in drywall, cement, insulation, sealants, and paint.
Amosite asbestos is brownish in color, and is the second most commonly used asbestos. It was most commonly found in sheets of cement, insulation board, and ceiling tiles and is considered one of the most dangerous to inhale.
Anthophyllite is the rarest type of asbestos, and was, therefore, mostly used in insulation and cement rather than consumer products.
Chrysotile, the most commonly used asbestos, can primarily be found within the ceilings, walls, and floors of buildings. In fact, it makes up over 90% of all the asbestos within buildings in the United States!
It could be found in everything from asphalt, cement, plastics, rubbers, textiles, insulation, and more. Because of its curly, flexible fibers, it was often woven into textiles for fireproofing.
Crocidolite, or blue asbestos, is the most hazardous type of asbestos. Its fibers are extremely thin and sharp, making them easy to inhale and the most likely to cause damage (I’ll explain this more in a moment!).
Thankfully, crocidolite was also the least likely asbestos to be found in consumer products like paint since it has a lower heat resistance. It was, however, commonly used for cement, spray-on coatings, and roof and floor tiles.
Tremolite was another type of asbestos able to be woven into textiles. It was also used for paints, sealants, insulation, and roofing tiles.
Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos is naturally an incredibly friable material—in other words, it’s very prone to crumbling and breaking into tiny fibers without a lot of force.
Now, this is technically not an adverse affect on health. However, it is the biggest reason why asbestos is a health concern.
Since asbestos easily crumbles into a number of tiny fibers, it is easily airborne. Think of dust, and how easily it can blow away or float in the air!
Once these sharp little fibers are floating freely, it becomes incredibly easy to inhale them—and therein lies the real danger.
Mechanical Damage to Respiratory Tract
Asbestos is technically not harmful until it has entered the body. However, as we know, it’s incredibly easy to inhale thanks to its friable nature.
In fact, once asbestos is disturbed, its fibers can become so small that they stay in the air for days!
Unfortunately, asbestos also lacks an odor and inhalation is not painful or otherwise noticeable. This means that you likely won’t have any idea that you’re even breathing in asbestos, which is part of the danger.
Once they’re inhaled, these sharp little asbestos fibers can travel deep into your lungs and bury themselves into the soft tissues there.
After these fibers have made their home in your lungs, they will gradually damage your lungs by irritating the tissue and causing microscopic wounds. As they heal, these wounds will scar over, and the cycle will continue.
As more and more tough scar tissue develops, your lungs will lose elasticity, and breathing will become more difficult. This condition has been named “asbestosis,” and you may not realize you have it for anywhere from 10-40 years after exposure due to its extremely gradual development.
Of course, asbestosis will be more or less severe based on a number of factors, like preexisting conditions, age, amount of exposure, and how long a person was exposed.
Some people with very light exposure may not ever even develop asbestosis. But with that said, no amount of exposure is ever considered safe.
Not only is it impossible to immediately identify asbestos inhalation or its severity, but there is no known way of clearing asbestos out of the lungs once it has been inhaled.
Unfortunately, as serious as it is on its own, asbestosis is not the only condition that can develop after asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is also officially classified by the IARC as “carcinogenic to humans,” or a Group 1 carcinogen. In other words, it is a material that is known to cause cancer.
Several different types of cancer can develop as a result of exposure to asbestos. The most common two are lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Lung cancer is, of course, cancer of the lungs, and can include symptoms like coughing up blood, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chest pain, coughing, and chronic respiratory infections.
Treatment and recovery for lung cancer heavily depend on when it is caught and how far it has spread before diagnosis.
Mesothelioma is a relatively rare cancer characterized by the growth of malignant—or harmful—tumors that affect the lining (or mesothelium) of several different organs. This includes the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart, or testes.
Nearly all mesothelioma cases involve the lining of the lungs, which makes sense when considering that most cases of it are linked to asbestos inhalation exposure.
Like asbestosis, mesothelioma generally has a long period of latency before it develops. 20-50 years may pass after exposure to asbestos before a person develops it, and once it does develop, it is extremely aggressive.
It is also a form of cancer with no cure, although its progression may be slowed down by various treatments.
While less common, cancer of the voice box, or larynx, and the ovaries are also associated with asbestos. Increased risk of developing other cancers is also linked to asbestos exposure, although the correlation is not as definitive yet.
Needless to say, asbestos is an incredibly formidable and dangerous material. If at all possible, I would highly recommend researching more about and testing for asbestos if you suspect it is present within your home.