What Is Asbestos?

Once marketed as a “magic mineral,” asbestos is now an infamous public health menace. Learn about what asbestos is, why it is harmful and how it was used in numerous construction materials and consumer products.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral substance that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency. Asbestos fibers are soft and flexible yet resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion. Pure asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can also be mixed into cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger.

These qualities once made asbestos very profitable for business, but unfortunately, they also make asbestos highly toxic.Asbestos Facts:

  • Refers to a group of fibrous, heat-resistant minerals
  • Once a common ingredient in American construction materials
  • Microscopic fibers can become trapped in the body, causing disease over time
  • Industry executives covered up health dangers for decades

Asbestos is not a single type of mineral — rather, it refers to a group of silicate minerals that share the same fibrous nature. In business terms, it was common to speak of common “white asbestos” (chrysotile) and the less often used “blue asbestos” (crocidolite) and “brown asbestos” (amosite).

Legally, the U.S. government recognizes six types of asbestos that fall into two general categories as outlined in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) of 1986.

Types of Asbestos Recognized by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

  • Serpentine asbestos: Chrysotile
  • Amphibole asbestos: Crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, actinolite

Scientifically speaking, other asbestiform minerals exist that may be just as dangerous as the six legally recognized types. In 2008, legislation was introduced in Congress that would have extended the definition of asbestos to include other amphibole minerals such as winchite and richterite.

However, in the decades since AHERA was passed, every further attempt to regulate asbestos in the United States has failed due to pressure from business interests. Though the use of asbestos is heavily restricted, the United States remains one of the only developed nations in the world that has not banned asbestos.

Currently, it is legal to include asbestos in almost all types of American products as long as the product does not contain more than 1 percent asbestos.

However, many old buildings and machines in the United States still contain high-percentage asbestos products that were manufactured before modern regulations came into effect. In addition, manufacturers in China and India routinely use asbestos in their factories.

Asbestos remains a threat to the health of people in the United States and all around the globe.

Updated: February 8, 2019 — 5:51 pm

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