Asbestos generally refers to long threads of silicate fiber compounds. The word asbestos actually comes from the Greek word for “inextinguishable” as they are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals as well as non-conductive. These unique properties made asbestos a useful material in many industries including the shipbuilding, automobile, and construction industries.
In America, they were first mined and used commercially during the late 1800s, gaining popularity until the 1970s. It was then that the use of asbestos was finally banned for certain uses as the health hazards came to the forefront, including manufacturers of electric hair dryers.
In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all new uses of asbestos; previously established uses, however, were still allowed. This was intended as a way to slow and then eliminate the use of asbestos in the United States, however it was overturned in 1990. Also in 1989, regulations regarding damaged or exposed asbestos in schools are also established.
Even today asbestos can be found in many products including:
- brake pads and shoes,
- roofing tar and roof shingles,
- clutch plates,
- fire blankets,
- the fireproof clothing worn by firefighters, and
- thermal pipe insulation.
Linking asbestos to cancer
Asbestos poses the greatest threat to those who work with it regularly as they are most likely to inhale the fibers. When asbestos is disturbed, as may occur when it is being fitted for a particular use such as insulating a section of piping or wall, the smaller fibers break off and become airborne. In this form, the people around them can easily inhale the asbestos fibers.
Once inhaled, the asbestos lodges within the lungs and causes irritation, scarring, and possible abnormal cell growth, resulting in tumors and cancer as well as other mesothelioma symptoms. Asbestos cancer is also referred to as mesothelioma, because it affects the lining of the body’s organs which is called mesothelium.
Workers in the following trades have the greatest risk of being exposed to asbestos and developing mesothelioma:
- Asbestos mining and milling
- Construction/building, particularly working with insulation
- Asbestos removal workers
- Automobile workers
- Asbestos textiles manufacturing