For more than 100 years, American manufacturers and contractors relied heavily on what they called the “magic mineral” — asbestos. After it was revealed in the early 1900s that asbestos posed a dangerous and high risk of damage to human health, an industry-wide cover-up was orchestrated to conceal the facts in an attempt to sustain and grow the massive profits asbestos mining and distribution brought.


Asbestos is a toxic, dangerous and prolific natural product that has caused tens of thousands of deaths. Every citizen should be aware of its dangers, how it was used and the risks that it still poses today.

Here are some important facts about asbestos:

Despite the well-known, researched and documented health risks, it is still being used today. Additionally, the substance still resides in many products and buildings that were constructed throughout the 20th century, so the risk of exposure is still high today for many.

What Is It?

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A common misconception is that asbestos is a synthetic material. The truth is that it occurs naturally as a mineral. It’s extracted from below Earth’s surface using industrial mining techniques and procedures. Natural deposits occur all over the world, including in the United States, Canada, Russia, China, South Africa and South America. Once mined from the ground, it gets processed and developed into industrial materials.

As an eminent product of the industrial revolution and beyond, asbestos was believed to be a highly valuable material for, among many reasons, its versatility and light weight.

Though light, it’s an exceptionally durable material. It’s composed of layers of fibers, each with their own composition of millions of further microscopic fibrils. These fibers together create a virtually indestructible material.

Types of Asbestos

The EPA classifies 6 different minerals as asbestos. All 6 types are known human carcinogens, meaning they are toxic to human health.

Asbestos minerals have 2 broad classifications: serpentine and amphibole. The only member of the serpentine class is chrysotile.

Also called white asbestos, chrysotile is composed of long, curly fibers that are considered more flexible or malleable than other types. Chrysotile is not only a common building material in pre-1980s buildings, but it’s also been used as a material woven into industrial-strength fabrics and upholsteries.

Amphibole type has 5 different subtypes:

  1. Actinolite
  2. Amosite
  3. Anthophyllite
  4. Crocidolite
  5. Tremolite

Of these 5, only amosite and crocidolite are used extensively for commercial purposes. Amosite, or brown asbestos, is used as an insulation product in industrial, commercial and residential construction.

Crocidolite, or blue asbestos, is primarily sourced in South Africa. Its main uses were the steam engine and pipe insulations as well as spray-on insulator coatings.

Similar materials, including winchite and richterite, are also mined from the ground. They’ve also been linked to asbestos-related diseases in miners and other workers.

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Why Do Companies Use It?

Anyone involved in industrial manufacturing and construction using asbestos materials can attest to what a useful product it was thought to be.

When the first mine in North America opened in 1874 in Quebec, the industry believed they had found a revolutionary mineral that could drastically improve manufacturing operations and profitability.

It’s a strong, indestructible material that is impervious to fire, chemical exposure, water erosion or any other threats. It can hold up in virtually any environment and works as a natural insulator. It became an in-demand product, justifying its continued global extraction and distribution. Companies used and continue to use it for dozens of reasons.

But there are other reasons why companies coveted the mineral, including:

  • Low Cost: To this day, it’s still a cheap material to extract, distribute and purchase. Unlike alternative products such as industrial plastics or other minerals, it doesn’t need to go through expensive refining and processing. The limited investment in turning it into an immediately workable product makes it a desirable material. Manufacturers can add it as an ingredient to their products like brake pads, clutches, tiles, roofing shingles for a low price and a high return on investment.
  • Availability: It’s an abundantly available natural resource. The world’s largest mines were in North America, and it became a key export material for the entire continent’s economy. Though the last mine in North America—a mine in Quebec—closed in 2011, countries like China and Russia continue to mine and export it.
  • Weight: By nature, it’s exceptionally lightweight, making it easy to extract from the ground and even easier to transport. Because transportation and export costs are calculated by weight, it saves distributors on their overhead costs.
  • Job Creation: Another reason why it was distributed so prolifically was that it was a major economic catalyst for jobs. The real number of jobs directly and indirectly associated with its production is untold. However, a Canadian report indicated that in eastern Quebec, there was a region with 3 active mines that employed 6,200 workers in 1967. Factoring in the number of workers involved in the distribution, manufacturing and construction of asbestos-containing materials (ACM), the numbers of jobs it created is in the millions.
  • Profitability: Production was and still is a hugely profitable industry. While the United States and Canada no longer mine it, both countries are still involved in facilitating the export of asbestos between countries where it hasn’t yet been banned or regulated. Additionally, Canada continues to import certain products, such as brake pads, that contain asbestos due to how profitable they are. The U.S. has still not banned it. Products can be purchased in the U.S. today that contain asbestos.
  • Military Use: Sadly, one of the largest economic drivers of ACM production was through the United States, British and Canadian militaries. Considered the ideal military-grade material, it was used as a fire-retardant and insulator in virtually every military asset from ships, planes and vehicles to barracks, buildings and command posts. Its use exploded during World War II when military production ramped up. To this day, many of the world’s top militaries still have older assets that contain ACM and continue to expose military service members to health hazards.

Many people wonder if it was so profitable, effective and readily available, why is it so controversial? The answer is relatively complex despite the irrefutable evidence to support claims against its use.

How Did I Get Exposed?

Anyone working around ACM is at risk of having inhaled or ingested fibers. It was used in residential, commercial and industrial construction throughout the 20th century.

Asbestos was wrapped along pipes and electrical wires. It was added to tiles and shingles. It was used as an additive ingredient in cement products, paints and glues. It was a leading product used to manufacture brake pads, clutches and transmission parts. It was also used to protect boilerplates and engines. It was even used in beer-making filtration systems.

How Asbestos Becomes a Threat

When ACM are left alone, they pose a lower risk to human health. However, every time someone touches or disturbs materials, they release fine powdery and fibrous parts into the air.

Airborne particles settle on nearby surfaces, ready to be disturbed again. What’s worse is that in their airborne state, they can easily and unknowingly be inhaled or ingested through the nose or mouth of anyone in the area.

If you’re wondering if you’ve ever been exposed, consider these possible ACM products:

Many products used at various worksites contained dangerous ACM. Employees were exposed on a daily basis—some all day long. Some occupations presented a higher risk of exposure than others and the majority of workers were unknowingly exposed.

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One of the now-famous examples of massive exposure is with the first responders at Ground Zero in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. These emergency services personnel were exposed when the World Trade Center’s North Tower came down. It was manufactured using hundreds of tons of ACM, which were all released into the air after the attack. First responders, survivors who worked in the Center, and anyone in the area were all susceptible to inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers.

In many countries, it’s the number one cause of workplace-related deaths. Sadly, it isn’t well-reported due to the decades-long latency period between exposure on the job and the development of fatal conditions.

It takes anywhere between 10 and 50 years for symptoms of mesothelioma to develop after initial exposure.

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Secondary Exposure

Though there is a huge risk of workers and veterans being exposed, there’s also another lesser-known threat—secondary exposure.

When particles become airborne, they can settle onto workers’ clothing, equipment, and personal items. When these contaminated items come home after work with the employee, it puts everyone who comes into contact with that person at risk as well.

There are many stories of family members—husbands, wives, and children—developing mesothelioma or other diseases due to secondary exposure from someone in their home. Additionally, secondary exposure affected worksite visitors, office personnel and anyone else who may have been in or around a contaminated area.

What Happens After Exposure?

After someone has been exposed, they are at risk of developing asbestosis, mesothelioma or certain types of lung cancer. Developing an asbestos-related disease is often a prolonged process.

Asbestos causes mesothelioma and other diseases over a gradual process:

  1. Exposure: Person inhales or ingests airborne fibers.
  2. Fibers Become Trapped: If the person inhales or ingests the substance, the fibers can become lodged deep within the tissue lining that covers the lungs (pleura) or the abdomen (peritoneum). Once trapped in the tissue linings, the fibers can never be expelled.
  3. Tissue Irritation and Inflammation: Over time, fibers irritate otherwise healthy tissues. This causes scarring to the tissues, which triggers inflammation and fluid buildup.
  4. Asbestos-Related Diseases Form: Scarring itself is considered a disease—asbestosis. When scarring worsens, healthy cells may become triggered and mutate into cancer cells, resulting in lung cancer or mesothelioma.

From Exposure to Mesothelioma

Being exposed to asbestos is like breathing in invisible daggers that sit deep within a person’s innermost tissue. Eventually, the fibers mutate healthy cells into cancerous mesothelioma cells.

With mesothelioma, this process can take anywhere between 10 and 50 years before noticeable symptoms develop. It’s possible that many people pass away of other causes before conditions like mesothelioma can be diagnosed.

Are Companies Still Using It?

If you’ve developed an illness as a result of exposure on the job, then you’re likely, and understandably, outraged at the negligence on the part of manufacturers. Many victims demand to know what the government has done about these unethical practices and whether or not the product has been banned.

Despite many legislative attempts, an outright ban in the United States has yet to come to fruition. At the state level, there have been many efforts to control or restrict its distribution. 

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Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA banned most ACM in 1989. In 1991, the ban was overturned by a Federal Court of Appeals and has yet to be replaced with a substitute regulation.

Companies still use, develop and import ACM products to this day in the United States and other developed nations.

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Learn More

Many advocates, policymakers, and influential political leaders have fought to increase awareness regarding the devastating health risks associated with this toxic material. Their commitment to this cause over the years has led to significant legal breakthroughs that have allowed the Federal government to establish avenues through which victims can seek compensation.

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Seeking Compensation For Mesothelioma

As a victim of mesothelioma, you may be entitled to legal compensation by filing a claim against the companies at fault. The courts ordered companies to establish trust funds to help victims and their family members access the money they’re entitled to.

An experienced mesothelioma lawyer can help you pursue legal action and ensure a higher chance of obtaining legal compensation. To find out more about filing a legal claim, contact the Mesothelioma Justice Network today to speak with a claims advocate. Call us at (888) 360-4215 or request a FREE Mesothelioma Justice Guide to understand the steps involved in filing a claim.

View Author and Sources
  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information, “ASBESTOS (CHRYSOTILE, AMOSITE, CROCIDOLITE, TREMOLITE, ACTINOLITE AND ANTHOPHYLLITE)” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 5, 2017.
  2. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risks.” Retrieve from: Accessed on December 5, 2017.
  3. The Globe and Mail, “Asbestos imports rising in Canada despite health warnings.” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 5, 2017.
  4. Foreign Policy Journal, “Exporting Asbestos: Putting Profit Before Health.” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 5, 2017.
  5. Mining Watch Canada, “Asbestos Mining in Canada.” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 5, 2017.

Last modified: January 18, 2019