Asbestos is the general name for a family of mineral products. These minerals are fibrous silicates that grow in crystalline structures that resemble a chain; at the level of the naked eye, these chains look like fibers or threads. The fibers are flexible and strong, and each fiber can be split into smaller fibers almost indefinitely. Asbestos fibers are waterproof and fireproof; they resist corrosion and electricity, and they have the tensile strength of metal wire. Asbestos is a truly remarkable substance.
It is also an incredibly deadly one. The ability of asbestos fibers to split into smaller and smaller strands allows asbestos fibers to enter the human body through the lungs and literally slide into and between the cells of soft tissues. The fiber’s near-indestructibility means that the body cannot break it down the way it breaks down other toxins or poisons – instead the body encysts the fibers to protect itself. This would not be a problem if a few fibers entered the lungs; our bodies can handle small quantities of nearly any invading material. Although asbestos fibers are present in the air and water, most people do not develop any form asbestos-related disease; their bodies are able to handle this minor environmental exposure. When exposure exceeds this background environmental level, however – as is often the case for workers exposed to asbestos in their job environments – the progression of asbestos-related diseases such as asbestos cancer and mesothelioma is generally rapid and deadly.
There are two basic groups of asbestos fibers. The serpentine group is asbestos which forms somewhat curly fibers which are long and supple. The amphibole group forms fibers which are straighter and stiffer. Among modern forms of asbestos found in consumer or industrial products, chrysotile asbestos is in the serpentine group and tremolite, amosite, crocidolite, actinolite and anthophyllite are in the amphibole group. Chrysotile asbestos is the most commonly seen form, and is usually used for textiles and commercial products.
Asbestos is found in a wide variety of commercial and industrial products. Because of its light weight, tremendous insulation properties, flexibility, and toughness, asbestos was viewed for many decades as a miracle substance that could make almost any product better. The tragic consequence of this use of asbestos has been a terrible toll of asbestos-related diseases, with the worst being malignant mesothelioma. Exposure to asbestos products, and development of diseases like mesothelioma, has occurred for millions of workers in industries such as boilermaking, pipefitting, construction, shipyard trades, and many, many others. In addition, many people have been exposed to asbestos in building materials as buildings age, deteriorate, or burn down, releasing the asbestos in their insulation or other materials. Still others have been exposed indirectly, through sharing a home with someone exposed occupationally who brought asbestos home with them on their work clothes.
Asbestos is now largely banned in most of the countries of the world, although there are still some industries using it and some products which contain it. Asbestos will continue to have a serious impact on public health for many decades to come, however, as the quantity of existing asbestos products in homes, schools, offices, and other structures is vast. Because of the severe health risks posed by asbestos, it is critically important for informed consumers to be aware of the exposure risk in their environment.