- By Michael Bartlett
Asbestos refers to a group of several naturally occurring minerals, six of which have been formally recognized. However, asbestos is commonly divided into two groups: chrysotile and amphibole. The first type, also known as white asbestos, has the highest prevalence, being used as a raw material in approximately 95% of all asbestos-containing products, while the latter is less frequently encountered in consumer products nowadays.
The numerous convenient properties of asbestos, such as durability, resistance to heat and fire, as well as inability to conduct electricity, determined its widespread use over the course of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the employment of these minerals dates back to Ancient Egypt, when cloths made with asbestos fibers were used to wrap the bodies of pharaohs as a part of the embalmment process. In the U.S., the prevalence of asbestos increased drastically following the Industrial Revolution due to its practical properties, accessibility, and low-cost. It was preponderantly used in the construction industry, as well as in the military, particularly by the U.S. Navy.
Even though the serious health risks of prolonged exposure to asbestos had been suggested by multiple independent researchers and pathologists since the 1900s, it was not until the 1970s that multiple government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed asbestos carcinogenic. The hazardous effects of exposure have subsequently been confirmed, research and studies revealing that asbestos can lead to the development of severe respiratory conditions such as asbestosis and pleurisy, as well as to the occurrence of terminal diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer. Although the risk increases with the duration of exposure and with the amount of inhaled or ingested fibers, it cannot be denied that asbestos poses a tremendous threat to public health.
Despite stricter regulations regarding the use of asbestos having been enforced in the 1980s in the U.S., exposure still represents a serious issue nowadays, since the import of asbestos-containing or asbestos-tainted materials is far from being a rare occurrence. The carcinogen is currently banned entirely in 55 countries, with notable exceptions including Canada, the U.S., and Russia, as well as India and China, two of the top producers of asbestos at the moment. Although the mining of asbestos in the U.S. has been ceased in 2002, over 1,000 tons are annually imported from countries where mining is still allowed, such as Brazil.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that up to 5,000 different asbestos-containing consumer products have been manufactured over the course of the previous century in the U.S. Construction materials, household appliances and automotive components are only three categories of such products. The heyday of asbestos production in the U.S. occurred between 1940 and 1972, as the U.S. Navy began increasing the use of asbestos-containing insulation for their vessels.
Occupational exposure accounts for the majority of asbestos-related conditions. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified over 75 occupational groups which are at high-risk of developing serious diseases due to long-term or frequent exposure. However, the workplace does not represent the only circumstance in which one might be in prolonged contact with these toxic minerals. Houses, particularly those erected before the mid-1980s, may also pose a great risk for the health of their inhabitants. Since a large number of building products which contain asbestos, such as insulation, ceiling tiles, and roof shingles, tend to become brittle in time, contamination is more likely to happen by inhaling or swallowing fibers released into the air.
Asbestos is responsible for the death of over 12,000 people every year in the U.S. In order to avoid exposure, it is crucial to recognize asbestos-containing materials and products, which may put your well-being at stake, particularly when they are old, brittle, loosely-bound or disturbed. The following list includes some of the most commonly encountered asbestos-containing items grouped by various criteria. However, the list is not exhaustive.
If you suspect asbestos is present in one or multiple products in your house, it is highly important to not disturb the item in question in any way, as friction often leads to fibers being released into the air, especially when materials are brittle or loosely-bound. It is strongly recommended to opt for the professional services of an asbestos abatement company whose well-trained employees will efficiently remove the carcinogenic minerals from your home. Similarly, if you are unsure whether a product contains asbestos, there are numerous asbestos testing companies whom you can send a sample to in order to find out.
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