You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire.” The corollary to this might be “Where’s there’s heat, there’s asbestos.”
Ironically, asbestos was used in order to protect property (and incidentally, human lives) from the ravages of fire. Because of this, asbestos was used in virtually all industrial applications (in fact the modern history of asbestos usage closely parallels the history of industrialization) as well as the construction of buildings and sea-going vessels. It is possible that asbestos has saved hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage, but it has cost untold amounts in terms of human pain and suffering.
The group of minerals that geologists classify as asbestiform, or as being asbestos, have many unique characteristics that in turn have made them easy to use in a wide variety of industrial applications.
The word “asbestos” itself is a generic term for at least eight different mineral substances, six of which have been “officially” recognized as such. These six minerals are divided into two broad categories: chrysotile and amphibole. Every different kind of asbestos has had its own specific uses, but the vast majority of asbestos-containing materials were made from chrysotile.
Chrysotile, also known as “white” asbestos, is by far the most common variety. 95% of all asbestos-containing materials are made with this material, which is found in serpentine rocks. Amphibole asbestos is no longer commercially used, but continues to lurk in aging power generation plants, chemical factories and petroleum refineries.
Asbestos is essentially a form of rock, and as such, occurs naturally in the ground. It can be — and has been — mined and processed in much the same way as other minerals. What makes asbestiform minerals different from other types of rock is the fact that they are soft and pliable, like cotton and wool.
Because of this unique property, these fibers can be woven into cloth, made into insulation, gaskets and many other useful things where heat and fire pose a hazard. Asbestos has been used since ancient times; early Egyptians under the Pharaohs knew of the materials and made use of it, as did the Greeks and Romans during the Hellenistic period. Frankish emperor Charlemagne (ca. 745 – 814 C.E.) allegedly owned an asbestos tablecloth with which he amazed visitors by throwing it into the fire pit (commonly done in order to clean asbestos fabrics).
By 1900, medical researchers in Europe had come to realize that asbestos posed a serious threat to human health. By 1930, asbestos was strictly regulated in Great Britain; however, this model was not followed in the United States. A conspiracy to hide its adverse effects was exposed in 1977 by the plaintiff’s attorney in an asbestos lawsuit. Prior to that point, corporate lawyers had argued that their clients “didn’t know” about the hazards of asbestos; the discovery of the “Sumner Simpson Papers“ proved that there was indeed a conspiracy of silence dating from the late 1930s. This ‘conspiracy’ literally affected millions of people with its deadly consequences – allowing those who worked on or near the substance the possibility of contracting an asbestos illness, such as asbestosis or pleural plaques, or even one of the deadly forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Amphibole asbestos has now been outlawed throughout the world; however, chrysotile asbestos is still produced in Canada, Russia, and in the U.S. Canada is now the largest producer of chrysotile asbestos, much of which is shipped to developing nations.
Currently, the U.S. Congress is engaged in debates over legislation that would eventually outlaw all production, manufacture, marketing and distribution and use of all forms of asbestos within the nation’s borders and its territories. Despite the efforts of United States Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, Congress continues to wrangle over the issue of whether or not there should be a comprehensive ban on all forms of asbestos.
Meanwhile, in the United States, asbestos is still legally used in 3,000 different consumer products, predominantly building materials and automobile parts. In addition, asbestos remains in millions of structures throughout the country, as it was added to everything from roofing shingles and cement wallboard to pipe lagging and floor tiles for the better part of a century.
Asbestos today is primarily used in construction and automotive products. Although a number of these products are no longer manufactured or sold, they are still found in older buildings and vehicles. In addition, asbestos is a known contaminant in talc, modeling clay and vermiculite – a type of clay used for insulation and even in gardening. They represent only a few of the asbestos-containing products that continue to be sold and used legally in the U.S. today.