Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals composed of thin, needle-like fibers. Exposure to asbestos causes several cancers and diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Although asbestos strengthens and fireproofs materials, it is banned in many countries. Asbestos is not banned in the United States.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency. Asbestos fibers are soft and flexible yet resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities make the mineral useful, but they also make asbestos exposure highly toxic.

Pure asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can be used in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger. But when someone inhales or ingests asbestos dust, the mineral fibers can become forever trapped in their body.

Over decades, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and eventually genetic damage to the body’s cells. A rare and aggressive cancer called mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos also causes other forms of cancer as well as progressive lung disease.

Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and it is unsafe to sniff a substance suspected of being asbestos. To detect asbestos, a sample of questionable material must be sent to a lab for testing.

Asbestos Facts

  • Asbestos is a natural mineral used in many products because of its resistance to heat.
  • Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer.
  • Asbestos is not banned in the U.S.
  • Exposure happens on the job, in the military, at school, through products or secondhand exposure.

Types of Asbestos

Asbestos is not a single mineral — rather, it refers to a group of silicate minerals that share the same fibrous nature. In layman’s terms, it is often called “white asbestos” (chrysotile), the rarer “blue asbestos” (crocidolite) and “brown asbestos” (amosite).

Legally, the U.S. government recognizes six types of asbestos that fall into two categories, as outlined in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) of 1986.

Types of Asbestos Recognized by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Tremolite Asbestos

Amphibole asbestos

  • Crocidolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite
White Christmas asbestos-containing snow decoration

Serpentine asbestos

  • Chrysotile

Scientifically, other asbestiform minerals exist that may be just as dangerous as the six legally recognized types. In 2008, legislation was introduced in Congress that would have extended the definition of asbestos to include other amphibole minerals such as winchite and richterite.

In the decades since AHERA was passed, though, every further attempt to regulate asbestos in the U.S. has failed due to pressure from business interests.

Where Does Asbestos Come From?

Natural deposits of asbestos are found all around the world. The toxic mineral was once mined throughout North America. Now the main exporters are Russia, Kazakhstan and China.

Raw asbestos is made by crushing asbestos ore to separate out the other minerals in it, and then processing the asbestos until it has a soft, wooly consistency.

Pure asbestos can be made into paper, felt, cloth or rope. Asbestos fibers have also been mixed into cements, drywall compounds, plastics, paints, sealants, and adhesives.

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Scientific studies show exposure to asbestos is linked to several diseases, including cancers.

The most common asbestos-related cancer is mesothelioma. But there are definite connections to asbestos lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.

Other asbestos-related diseases include

  • Asbestosis
  • Pleural effusions
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleuritis
  • Diffuse pleural thickening
  • COPD

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