The most commonly used and found types of asbestos in the United States are chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite.
Asbestos is the term used to refer to a specific group of fibrous minerals found in rock and soil. Usually mined, there are two classes of asbestos—serpentine and amphibole. Within those two classes of asbestos are six different types: chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos), anthophyllite, tremolite, actinolite.
Asbestos naturally forms fibers that are thin but strong—fibers that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Asbestos is also incredibly durable. It is heat and fire-resistant, sound resistant, and doesn’t dissolve in water nor evaporate into the air. As a material, it is also plentiful to mine and relatively cheap to manufacture.
While all of this has made asbestos an attractive mineral to use in construction, manufacturing, chemical handling, it is now known that exposure to asbestos is incredibly dangerous, and could be fatal.
Exposure to asbestos is now well known for leading to the development of mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and other lung diseases. Just fifty years ago, asbestos was still popular across many industries, including the construction and manufacturing industries because the health risks were lesser known.
History of Asbestos in the U.S.
While the United States has actively stopped mining most asbestos and the government has enacted many rules and regulations to protect against asbestos exposure, it is still prevalent in many homes, schools, workplaces, and other infrastructure today.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, asbestos exposure was at an all-time high in mining, construction, manufacturing, and other industries. This was due to the attractiveness of asbestos as a material. It was used and favored because of how heat-resistant it was, of how good it was at being used as an insulant, and how cheap the material was to mine and extract.
A lack of regulations and precautions, and a lack of understanding of the dangers of asbestos, made it so that workers across various industries were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, some for the duration of their careers.
Even though doctors began to understand and discuss the risks of asbestos exposure—and the possibility that this exposure could lead to cancer—as early as the 1930s, many bosses, factory owners, and construction site managers ignored this advice for the next 40 years. There was not enough proof that early on for proper regulations to be placed and without those regulations employers were unwilling to let go of asbestos because of its high-efficiency and low cost.
In the 1970s, it was discovered that people who were regularly exposed to asbestos were being diagnosed with a variety of potentially fatal diseases, e.g. mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.
Most construction and manufacturing materials stopped using asbestos in the late 1970s or early 1980s as the material began to be regulated nationally. That being said, it is absolutely still possible for asbestos to be found in factories, schools, and homes throughout the United States.
In order to understand the full risks of asbestos exposure, it’s important to look at the different types of asbestos, where they are found, and how hazardous each one can be if you are exposed to it.
Types of Asbestos
There are two groups of asbestos—amphibole and serpentine. These are categorized based on certain characteristics prevalent within the type.
There is only one type of serpentine that is a form of asbestos, and that is chrysotile asbestos. Serpentine asbestos is classified by having curly fibers that are layered on top of one another.
Chrysotile asbestos—often referred to as white asbestos—is the only type of asbestos group in the Serpentine asbestos group. Historically, chrysotile has accounted for 95% of the world’s asbestos use. Chrysotile is soft and fibrous, and can mostly be found in the United States and Canada.
Chrysotile—being the only member of the serpentine group of asbestos—is distinct from other asbestos materials. The characteristics that make it unique are part of why it has been so widely used in building materials and construction sites.
There are three polytypes, or variations, of chrysotile. Those three polytypes are clinochrysotile, orthochrysotile, and parachrysotile.
These polytypes are considered to be a variation of chrysotile and not another variety of serpentine. This is because the variations between the three polytypes are not significant enough for a separate classification. Clinochrysotile is the most common type of chrysotile to be mined and used today, but research rarely distinguishes between the three polytypes. More often than not, just understanding that chrysotile asbestos is being used is enough to get the full context.
Chrysotile’s silky fibers are compiled into small bundles that vary in size—these bundles can end up being anywhere from a few millimeters to a few centimeters in length. Chrysotile’s fibers are strong enough to resist heat but flexible enough to be woven to create a fabric.
Chrysotile is still being mined in Russia, Canada, and Italy which has led to a great deal of controversy about the health risks of this type of asbestos. While chrysotile has been proven to be the least damaging form of asbestos, it has still been found to be hazardous.
Healthcare professionals caution that any exposure to asbestos, regardless of how it’s mined or its type, is unsafe. Like any other type of asbestos, chrysotile is considered to be a carcinogen and may cause a variety of lung diseases that may be fatal.
Uses of Chrysotile
Chrysotile has been used in the manufacturing of many products, structures, and foundational. This form of asbestos is not actually banned in certain use cases, and can still be found in many that exist today. Chrysotile can be found in:
- Roofing shingles
- Power supply lines
- Pipe insulation
- Fire blankets and other forms of fireproofing
- Brake pads and gaskets
The second class of asbestos is amphibole asbestos. Amphibole asbestos was commonly used in the 20th century until the early 1980s but is largely out of circulation today. Amphibole asbestos fibers are thin and needle-like and they are all very easy to inhale into and become trapped in the lungs.
Unlike serpentine asbestos, most amphibole asbestos was banned in most of the world towards the end of the 20th century because of the danger it poses to those exposed to it. Also unlike serpentine asbestos, there are five distinct types of amphibole asbestos.
Amosite, also known as brown asbestos, is found in South Africa and is a form of the mineral grunerite. Making up 5% of the asbestos-containing building materials found in the United States, amosite is the second most commonly used and found type of asbestos in the country. When compared to chrysotile asbestos, amosite is considered much more dangerous and more likely to cause lung diseases. This is because of the razor-sharp fibers that may get trapped in the lungs.
Uses of Amosite
Amosite was most commonly found to be used in the following applications:
- Pipe insulation
- Home insulation
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- Thermal insulation
- Chemical insulation
- Electrical insulation
- Heat and fire protection
Crocidolite, often referred to as blue asbestos, is the fibrous form of the mineral riebeckite. Crocidolite asbestos was mined in South Africa, Bolivia, and Western Australia.
This makes crocidolite particularly easy to inhale and the fibers even more likely to become trapped in the lungs and eventually causing damage. It is speculated that crocidolite is also responsible for the most asbestos-related illnesses and deaths in the United States than any other type of asbestos. Luckily, crocidolite is the least-heat-resistant type of asbestos and therefore not used as often as other types.
Uses of Crocidolite
When it was used, crocidolite was most commonly used in the following:
- Spray-on coatings
- Steam engine insulation
- Pipe insulation
- Acid battery casings
- Cigarette filters
Anthophyllite asbestos was most commonly mined in Finland and Japan, ranges from brown to yellow in color, and contains magnesium and iron. It wasn’t used much and is considered to be the rarest form of asbestos that has been used, but is also found as a contaminant in vermiculite, talc, and chrysotile asbestos.
Uses of Anthophyllite
While anthophyllite was used in very minimal quantities, it can be found in:
- Cement (most common)
- Other construction materials
Tremolite asbestos is most commonly found in India and ranges in color from dark green to a cloudy white. Tremolite can also be found to be a byproduct of vermiculite, talc, and chrysotile asbestos.
Uses for Tremolite
Actinolite was most commonly found and mined in Australia and has a dark green color. Actinolite, like tremolite and anthophyllite, can be found as a byproduct of vermiculite, talc, and chrysotile asbestos. Actinolite is mostly comprised of calcium, magnesium, iron, and silicon.
Uses of Actinolite
It’s worth noting that both actinolite and tremolite are usually not exclusively mined for their particular properties but rather found as a byproduct of other types of asbestos or materials containing asbestos.
Minerals Containing Asbestos
Most of the time, asbestos has been intentionally mined in order to create specific products that benefit from its specific qualities. In a few cases, asbestos has been exposed unintentionally though the mining of other materials.
When ‘exfoliated’, vermiculite can grow anywhere from eight to 30 times its size. Due to it being lightweight, it’s often found for home insulation—specifically in attics and basements. Vermiculite is no longer used in housing insulation, but still may be found in older homes.
During the 20th century, 80% of vermiculite was mined in the town of Libby, Montana. The vermiculite from Libby was found to have asbestos within it. Eventually, this asbestos exposure led to the death of 10% of the town’s population due—this didn’t only impact the miners but also their families and others throughout the town.
Even though all vermiculite doesn’t contain asbestos, it’s no longer mined or used because of the risk of what happened in Libby. If you or someone you know has vermiculite insulation in your home, it is a good rule of thumb to assume it came from Libby and treat it as you would any other asbestos-based insulation—do not disturb the insulation, and hire trained professionals to handle its removal.
Talc is a material also that has been found to have small trace amounts of asbestos. Talc is most commonly used in talcum powder but has also been known to be found in pharmaceuticals, crayons, chalk, paint, rubber, cosmetics, and rubber.
The Dangers of Asbestos
Exposure to asbestos can cause lung cancer or mesothelioma. People who work or have worked mining asbestos are at especially high risk, but so are those who work in chemical plants and other factories that use asbestos in their manufacturing process. If asbestos in a home, office, or school is disturbed, that can also lead to asbestos exposure. As asbestos continues to be provoked, particles are released in the air.
These particles can cause tiny tears to the lungs, and after enough damage and exposure can lead to mesothelioma or lung cancer. These diseases are fatal and while it’s clear that certain types of asbestos are more damaging, it’s important to take precautions against all types of asbestos.
Both lung cancer and mesothelioma can develop anywhere from 20-50 years after exposure. This makes it even more difficult to diagnose and fully understand the source of exposure. This is why it is important to take precautions against asbestos exposure as soon as possible.
It is clear that while some types of asbestos are more dangerous than others, it must be stated that all asbestos is dangerous and asbestos exposure needs to be regulated and mitigated.
While there has been a lot of work done to ensure the use of asbestos is regulated (and the most dangerous types banned), there are still a few ways that you can come into contact with asbestos. With that, there are also a number of recommended protocols to follow if you have been exposed.
Asbestos was mostly used in buildings and machinery manufacturing, so those are some of the most prominent places the material is still prevalent. Asbestos might be found in the following places:
- Home insulation (attics and walls)
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Shingles (roof and side)
- Pipe insulation
- Oil or coal furnace insulation
- Heat resistant fabrics
- Brakes, gaskets, etc. in cars
It’s not uncommon to look at this list and think that something you interact with on a day to day basis may contain asbestos. While no one is insulating their attics with asbestos in the present day, someone who buys an older house may find that their attics are insulated with asbestos. While this may sound scary, this isn’t anything to be worried about, so long as you take care of it.
If your home was built prior to 1980 and you are concerned about the presence of asbestos, it is recommended that you look into asbestos removal services. Asbestos removal (also referred to as asbestos abatement) is a process many homeowners are familiar with.
The process starts off with an evaluation of the asbestos in your home through an inspection with a licensed professional, to assess the presence of asbestos and the level of danger this asbestos may cause. In some cases, it may be determined that leaving the asbestos unattended poses no risk, but in others, the professional conducting the inspection may determine the asbestos could cause risk.
Once you’ve received this inspection, you’ll get a report of the level of asbestos found in your home (if any), the risk it poses, and a recommended mitigation plan. Then, you can work with an asbestos removal company to discuss a plan to remove the asbestos in your home.
This is something that many Americans have to deal with, and the folks who do this work are well trained and know how to handle this in a safe way.
Asbestos Safety Standards in the Workplace
Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have created regulations, laws, and best practices that hold employers accountable for providing a safe environment for their employees.
These regulations ensure that certain standards are met, including the levels of asbestos in the air, protective gear for employees, and monitoring employees and their health concerns. Regardless of the type of asbestos being used, the onus here is placed on the employer to create a safe and asbestos-free environment for their employees.
Currently, only 52 countries have banned all forms of asbestos, even though there are safer products that can accomplish the same things asbestos can. While asbestos manufacturing, mining, and importing/exporting is highly regulated, regardless of the type of asbestos being handled it can still cause unnecessary harm and damage to all those who come into contact with it.
Is All Asbestos Dangerous?
All asbestos fibers are tiny and can get pulled deeper into the lungs, affecting lung tissue, with each breath you take.
The three most common types of asbestos in the United States are chrysolite (white asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos), and amosite (brown asbestos). Of the three, crocidolite is the most dangerous and hazardous form of asbestos and chrysolite is the least dangerous. This is due to the size and sharpness of the asbestos fibers.
It is also clear that while prolonged exposure to asbestos leads to more damage, any level of exposure can lead to lung diseases like asbestosis. Regardless of the size of the asbestos fiber and type of asbestos, it is clear that all asbestos is dangerous.
While you may be exposed to a ‘safer’ type of asbestos, that does not mean you are safe from asbestos exposure. Every type of asbestos can lead to fatalities and exposure should not be taken likely regardless of the type.
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