Beginning in the early 1900s, asbestos was used in almost every application, from building materials to beauty supplies. It was cheap, readily available and virtually indestructible. The construction and manufacturing industries in particular found the toxic mineral useful in nearly every aspect of work.

Asbestos can also be found in automotive parts, plumbing, electrical work, air conditioning units and clothing. Despite widespread health concerns, asbestos is not banned in the United States. It is still found in items that include vehicle brake pads, home insulation, potting soils and roofing materials.

Asbestos came into popularity in the 1800s as the go-to insulation material because it was inexpensive, easy to use and virtually indestructible. Researchers now know asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma cancer.

What products are made with asbestos?

Some of the more commonly used asbestos-containing products in the early to mid 20th century included:

  • Automobile parts – Asbestos was used in brake parts, gaskets and valves because of its heat resistance.
  • Cement sheets – Cement sheets were used as a drywall alternative because it was easier to install and more durable.
  • Cigarette filters – Popular brands of cigarettes used filters laced with the most dangerous type of asbestos, crocidolite.
  • Electrical Panels – Used in construction applications, electrical panels receive and distribute electricity throughout buildings.
  • Fireproofing materials including textiles – Asbestos was used in a variety of fireproofing materials because it is heat and fire resistant. Products include textiles such as kitchen aprons and firefighting suits.
  • Gaskets – Used to create a seal between pipes or pieces of machinery, asbestos-containing gaskets were used in heat-generating engines and heavy equipment.
  • Laboratory hoods – Fume hoods that are commonly found in laboratories were made from asbestos because of the fireproof properties.
  • Molded plastic products – Asbestos was added to moldable plastics to improve the strength of the plastic and reduce the shrinkage when cooling.
  • Talcum powder – Commonly known as baby powder, asbestos was commonly used in talcum powder.
  • Tile – Floor, ceiling and roofing tiles contained asbestos.
  • Vinyl – Asbestos was mixed into plastic resin to make vinyl more durable and flexible.

It was also widely used in construction applications in adhesives, flexible ductwork, asbestos felt for floors and roofs, and insulation of all kinds.

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What is asbestos used in today?

Despite the known connection between mesothelioma and asbestos, asbestos is not outlawed in the United States. Thousands of tons are imported every year into the United States for the chloralkali industry, which uses asbestos to manufacture semipermeable diaphragms to produce chlorine and caustic soda.

Asbestos-containing products can be made in the United States as long as the toxic mineral accounts for less than 1 percent of the product. Many of the asbestos-containing products in the United States today are imported. The following products are made with asbestos and imported:

  • Automatic transmission components
  • Automobile clutches
  • Brake blocks
  • Brake liners and pads
  • Cement corrugated sheets
  • Cement flat sheets
  • Cement piping
  • Cement shingles
  • Clothing
  • Clutch facings
  • Disk brake pads
  • Drum break linings
  • Friction materials
  • Gaskets
  • Home insulation
  • Millboard
  • Mirror adhesives
  • Non roofing adhesives
  • Sealants and Coatings
  • Pipeline wraps
  • Potting soil
  • Roof coatings
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tiles

What is the use of asbestos?

Asbestos use dates back thousands of years, but modern usage began in the early 1800s.

Due to its virtually indestructible nature, asbestos creates a fire-, heat- and chemical-resistance barrier in any application. It was mixed into metals, sprayed onto wood and woven into cloth.

By the 1900s, asbestos was widely used in homes, vehicles and workplaces. For many people, there was no escaping the toxic fibers.

During World War I, military officials used it to protect some vehicles and vessels from being destroyed by fire. By World War II, asbestos was applied to nearly every vehicle, ship and aircraft. Workers and service members were equally exposed to the dangers.

Experts estimate about 3,000 products contained asbestos at the height of its use in modern times. In any home built before the 1980s, asbestos could be found in boilers, furnace ducts, floor tiles, cement sheets, soundproofing, decorative materials, joint compounds, fireproof stovetop pads, ironing board pads, hair dryers, baby powder and cosmetics.

Why is asbestos harmful to health?

Asbestos causes mesothelioma cancer, lung cancer and several other deadly diseases. Asbestos fibers enter the body through the nose, mouth and skin. Once in the body, the fibers become trapped, cause irritations and inflammation in the tissue and forms cancerous tumors.

Asbestos is the generic name for a group of naturally occurring minerals that, when pulled apart, form fibers. When the fibers are released into the air, they can be up to 200 times thinner than a human hair. They do not dissolve in liquid (or bodily fluids) or evaporate in the air. Fire, heat, chemicals or other biological factors cannot destroy them. Because they are so lightweight, they can linger in the air for hours or days.

Once asbestos fibers are in the body, they travel via the blood stream and lymph nodes. The process takes decades, aligning with the long latency period of mesothelioma (which takes decades to develop). In some cases, asbestos fibers enter the body through drinking water or eating, travel through the gastrointestinal system and become lodged in the stomach or abdominal area.

Who is allowed to remove asbestos?

There are no federal laws regulating who can and cannot remove asbestos. However, asbestos abatement is dangerous work that should be handed by qualified professionals who can remove and encapsulate the material before it poses a significant health risk.

Even though asbestos use today is limited, there are plenty of asbestos-containing products and materials that remain in homes, schools, government buildings and businesses across the United States. Over time, those products and materials have become brittle and can release toxic asbestos fibers into the air.

The federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) sets training requirements and regulations for anyone seeking to work as an asbestos-removal contractor. Under the act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created accreditation standards for anyone seeking to remove asbestos professionally. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with state and local authorities, have regulations regarding how asbestos should be handled.

Protect Yourself and Your Family

It is not recommended that homeowners attempt to remove asbestos without professional assistance, but many do because asbestos abatement can be costly. If you suspect asbestos contamination, take the following steps to protect yourself and your family:

  • Do not break or move suspicious materials
  • Do not sweep, vacuum or otherwise disturb asbestos debris
  • Limit activity in the area
  • Keep pets and children away from the area

If you must move asbestos products before an abatement professional arrives, wear protective eyewear, a face mask, disposable clothing and gloves. Wet the product thoroughly, place it in a garbage bag and seal it. Remember, asbestos waste cannot be placed in a regular landfill. It must be discarded in a hazardous waste landfill.

Which type of asbestos is most dangerous?

Asbestos is the commercial name for the following minerals found in the earth:

  • Chrysotile
  • Amosite
  • Crocidolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite

While all types of asbestos have been classified as cancer-causing agents, medical professionals and scientists have identified crocidolite as the most dangerous.

Also called blue asbestos, crocidolites appears to the naked eye as straight fibers. Of the different types, crocidolite is the most heat resistant and was widely used in pipes, pipe insulation, cement products and spray-on coatings.

Asbestos minerals belong to two families: serpentine and amphibole. The only asbestos type in the serpentine family is chrysotile, which accounts for some 95 percent of asbestos used worldwide. It is still permitted in some parts of the world. Serpentine fibers appeal curly to the naked eye.

All of the other types of asbestos are in the amphibole family, which appear needle shaped. Crocidolite and amosite are the most widely used type of amphibole asbestos.

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Written by Richard Stewart

Writer, Content Coordinator and Outreach Director

Richard Stewart is a writer, content coordinator and outreach director with over 12 years of experience covering asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, and treatment options. He is passionate about spreading awareness for asbestos and mesothelioma and helping victims find the information and resources they need online.

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