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History of Asbestos

Discovered centuries ago and treasured for its extraordinary heat- and fire-resistant properties, asbestos has long been used in a variety of products. But by the 19th century, research has shown that this rock-like mineral is directly linked to mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that attacks the lining that surrounds the abdominal organs.

At first glance, asbestos looks like an ordinary rock. Break it apart and it fractures into fluffy, lightweight fibers. These fibers can be deadly. There are five popular types of asbestos that belong to either the serpentine or amphibole class of minerals:

Chrysotile (White Asbestos)

Fine, curly fibers that form in sheets, flexible, known for good heat resistance.

Uses:

Most commonly used type of asbestos; vehicle brakes, cement, pipe insulation and roofing materials.

Crocidolite (Blue Asbestos)

Known for superior heat resistance, most dangerous form of asbestos.

Uses:

Steam-engine insulation, spray-on coatings, pipe insulation; curly fibers.

Amosite (brown asbestos)

Needle-like fibers, commonly from South Africa.

Uses:

Thermal-insulation products, fire-protection products.

Tremolite

Not widely used in the United States, most often mined with talc so traces of tremolite.

Uses:

Talcum powder; Paints, sealants, insulation.

Anthophyllite

Long, thin and straight.

Uses:

Traces of this may be found in talcum powder; used in composite flooring

Asbestos From The Beginning

Researchers have traced asbestos to use more than 4,500 years ago because it could be easily mixed into earthenware pots, cooking materials, woven into clothing and other uses. Modern usage in the United States began in the 1800s during the rise of the industrial age. In the mid-1800s, Staten Island, New York became a hub for asbestos mining. The mineral was used widely in the burgeoning city in construction materials, buildings, streets, pipes and a variety of other products. By World War II, asbestos was used in some form in nearly every ship and land vehicle in the military fleet. Within years, the military mandated that asbestos be used in every ship in the Naval fleet.

Dangers

The deadly link to asbestos came as early as 1900 when a London doctor found asbestos in the lung tissue of a factory worker. By 1918, physicians in the U.S. were making similar discoveries. By 1930, Johns-Manville, a major asbestos mining company, privately acknowledged the fatal link, but downplayed the information. Several other companies followed suit by hiding evidence and downplaying information that could link asbestos to disease.

Regulators Step In

It wasn't until decades later, by the 1980s, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a tougher stance against asbestos use, although thousands of consumer products still contain this deadly mineral. Although asbestos use has been outlawed in many large countries, it is still legal in the U.S., putting up to 1.3 million workers at risk everyday.

Asbestos Uses Today

Because the mineral is not banned in the U.S. and the widespread use in the past, those who work in construction, demolition and building renovations are at a high risk for exposure. Asbestos has also been found in cement sheets, vehicle brakes, chalkboards, paints, floor glues and fire blankets, just to name a few.

In addition, those who work as first responders, particularly following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, have become the new era of asbestos victims.

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