Asbestos exposure is nearly universal in the world today. Known and used since ancient times, the heat-resistant, non-conducive characteristics of asbestos has been useful in millions of applications since the dawn of the Industrial Age.
Yet it is this very usefulness that makes asbestos so deadly to humans and other organic living creatures. Asbestos is a group of minerals known as silicates – literally, forms of rock that do not break down inside a living body the way an organic invader does (such as a bacteria, a virus or organic dust particle).
Although technically banned for most industrial uses, asbestos remains legal for many purposes in the U.S., despite an attempt by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) to introduce legislation against it. Today, the “Asbestos-Containing Products Risk Reduction Act of 2002” (S. 2641) remains stalled in committee, and asbestos continues to be used in over 3,000 everyday products.
Those at highest risk for developing asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis (a scaring of the lungs) or malignant mesothelioma (a rare and deadly form of asbestos cancer) are those who worked in a variety of occupations prior to the 1980s, when U.S. corporations could no longer hide what they had known since the 1930s about asbestos hazards. Since then, the Occupational Safety and Hazards Agency (OSHA) has issued far more stringent regulations regarding the type of warnings, training and safety equipment companies are required to provide to their employees.
If you worked in a chemical plant thirty or more years ago, you may have been exposed to harmful levels of asbestos.
Where Was The Danger?
In addition to being heat and fireproof, asbestos is also resistant to reactive chemicals. As a result, asbestos was used in laboratories, bench and counter tops, coating materials, lab equipment and even protective clothing. Most of this asbestos was of the chrysotile variety.
For many years, chrysotile was described by corporate interests as “environmentally friendly,” and the “good asbestos,” despite scientific evidence to the contrary. In fact, according to a report prepared for the New York Academy of Sciences by John Harrington of Mount Sinai Medical Center, “there is consistent evidence that chrysotile is as active as crocidolite and amosite in inducing both lung cancer and mesothelioma this form of asbestos is carcinogenic to humans”.
This chrysotile, in the form of asbestos transite, was used in chemical plants and labs throughout the country for decades before it was banned for construction purposes in the 1970s.
Friable and Non-Friable
Asbestos transite had properties similar to cement; it could be sprayed on to pipes and ductwork, and molded into working surfaces and laminated. As long as it was non-friable, this form of asbestos posed no immediate hazard. However, as transite with asbestos containing material (ACM) aged, it was prone to crumbling, which caused the deadly microscopic fibers to flake off into the atmosphere. In this state, it is said to be friable. Such asbestos material can be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone.
In addition, laboratory and chemical plant ovens frequently contained friable asbestos in insulation linings.
Friable chrysotile asbestos products are considered Category II waste under environmental regulations, which also includes spent nuclear material.