Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral that humans have relied upon for centuries. The Ancient Greeks were the first civilization known to use it, and are the ones responsible for giving the material its name, which translates to “unquenchable.” Asbestos is not only resistant to fire, but also adds strength and insulates against heat, and for that reason it has been used in construction applications, in making materials that needed to stand up to high heat, and even to minimize sound.

Asbestos has been suspected of causing health problems since the late 19th century, and since that time researchers have documented a remarkable history of death and illness attributed to the mineral, and especially in those who had occupational exposure to it. Employees working in asbestos textile factories, asbestos mines, high-heat environments that used asbestos for insulation were among those who were most at risk for illnesses such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, and by the mid-1970s the United States and other developed countries had acknowledged the damage that the material causes.

There are six different types of asbestos in common use, and all of them are carcinogenic. They are:

  • Crocidolite – Also known as blue asbestos, it is the most dangerous form of asbestos. Fortunately, it is also the type that is least frequently used because it is not as effective an insulator as other types.
  • Chrysotile – The majority of asbestos used commercially is chrysotile asbestos. Its fibers have a different shape than the typical needle-like structure seen in other types of asbestos, and because of this there are many who argue that it is not harmful, but research has proven that it is just as deadly as other types.
  • Tremolite – Tremolite is extremely common in nature and is often found in close proximity to talc, vermiculite and chrysotile asbestos. Because they are so frequently found in the same locations, there is often cross-contamination that has meant that asbestos is found in materials made of talc, or vermiculite.
  • Anthophyllite – This is an uncommon type of asbestos that is most largely found in Finland, though mines do exist in Georgia and North Carolina in the United States.
  • Actinolite – The fibers of this type of asbestos have the typical needle-like shape, which lends itself to the fibers becoming embedded in the mesothelium. It is most frequently found in home insulation, drywall, and paint, where it is used in combination with vermiculite.
  • Amosite – This type of asbestos has a brown color, and has short, straight fibers. This gives it added strength, which made it very popular in construction applications. It is also known to have greater carcinogenic impact than other types of asbestos.

It has been estimated that asbestos causes between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths in the United States each year, and the World Health Organization estimates that worldwide over 110,000 people die from asbestos exposure each year. These deaths are from malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis, and asbestos-related lung cancer, in addition to other illnesses that the mineral is suspected of playing a role in.

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