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What is Asbestos?

By D Frank
Updated May 17, 2024
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Asbestos is a useful material made of six different fibrous minerals: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. These minerals come from mines throughout the world, including mines in such locations as South America, Australia and Canada. Best known for its heat retardant capacity, asbestos is used in such products as roofing shingles, automobile brake pads, floor tiles, and assorted gaskets. Wraps made of this material were also commonly used over the years to insulate heating ducts and water pipes in homes, offices, and other buildings.

While asbestos has some outstanding benefits and is part of a number of useful products, it also has numerous hazardous aspects to it. Individuals exposed to its fibers can suffer lung damage, heart damage, cancer, and other disabilities. Exposure has also proven deadly. The negative aspects of this material have caused quite a stir since the 1960s, when many of the problems associated with this material were discovered. Lawsuits seeking damages for asbestos-related disabilities and deaths have often been in the news.

In general, almost everyone has been exposed to some sort of asbestos. The fibers enter the air and water during the routine breakdown of products made from it. These fibers neither evaporate nor dissolve. For example, when the brakes are applied to a car, asbestos fibers are released into the air. While such limited exposure is not necessarily cause for alarm, repeated exposure, or exposure to large amounts, can lead to the problems described earlier.

Employees of businesses that mine asbestos minerals or make products from it have a much greater risk of exposure than the average citizen. Citizens who live near asbestos manufacturing plants also risk exposure. Asbestosis is the term used to describe the disease for those who suffer from lung-related problems due to exposure. Mesothelioma is a serious disease that may result from overexposure to this material.

In light of the many concerns about this material, many homeowners, schools, and businesses have sought to have the products removed from their premises. Typically, the removal process, known as asbestos abatement, requires compliance with strict procedures to ensure hazardous fibers are not released into the air, and thus endangering others. While working on hazardous projects like this, the abatement workers wear protective clothing and masks to ensure their own protection.

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Discussion Comments

By anon285881 — On Aug 18, 2012

How do I dispose of asbestos waste?

By anon277393 — On Jun 29, 2012

@Grace: I am quite sure the possibility of headaches is very slim. I have eaten and breathed these fibers probably 40 years of my 62 years and I am still kicking. Every job I ever had was continuous exposure.

On the other hand, I have heard of children fairly young dying from lung cancer from hanging around in their father's shop from exposure. Twenty years ago, they had procedures for removing asbestos. You are still here. Some people are more susceptible than others.

My only experience is I have spit out a boat load of those oatmeal looking fibers. I believe an X-ray will tell if you have anything is going on in the lungs. Asbestos is thought to also cause kidney bladder, colon, throat, esophagus, gastrointestinal and who knows what other cancers.

By anon157108 — On Mar 01, 2011

my dad has just found out he has asbestos but he has never worked with it or been exposed to large amounts. how is it possible he has this? he has also been diagnosed with C.O.P.D (emphysema) in January. Can anyone give me more advice or information on this please?

By RCraig — On Dec 07, 2008

My boyfriend was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis from asbestos two years ago and has rapidly lost an enormous amount of weight. He was told that the oxygen being used to breathe is robbing the rest of his body from oxygen. Since he uses oxygen tanks, shouldn't this help ease the strain on his lungs so that some of the oxygen can be directed to the rest of his body?

By Mystic — On Jul 18, 2007

About 20 years ago, I believe that I was exposed to asbestos. I have tightness in my chest and also am having trouble breathing when I try to go out and walk. I was exposed to asbestos at the University of Alberta Hospital while a ceiling in the part of the hospital that I was working in was being redone. I remember at the time getting really bad headaches and was told not to come back to work until the ceiling had been repaired. Now I have been to two different lung specialists and also a heat specialist and none of them can come up with an answer. This thought about the asbestos just came to me the other day. Now I am wondering if perhaps this could be my problem. Any help would be appreciated.......Grace

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