What Is Asbestos and Where Is It Found?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is known for its ability to resist fire and heat.

Asbestos can be found throughout the world in residential and commercial building products, fireproofing materials and in military settings. It was mined and widely used in a variety of commercial and industrial applications and products for much of the 20th century. This is because it was inexpensive to manufacture and excellent for heat and fireproofing applications.

As the link between asbestos and mesothelioma became more apparent, regulation in the US drastically increased, which led to decreased use of the material. Unfortunately, up to 8 million Americans may have already been exposed to asbestos. The primary cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure.

What Is Asbestos Used For?

Asbestos has long been used in the manufacture of building materials and textiles. As an industrialized US continued to develop throughout the 20th century, asbestos use increased dramatically. This extremely durable fire-proofing material was broadly used in many commercial and industrial applications. These included pipe and boiler insulation, oil tank lining and the construction of factories and buildings including homes, schools and churches. It was also used to manufacture many asbestos products such as automotive and railroad braking products, floor tiles, wallboard, cement, roof shingles, house siding and more.

Perhaps the most notable and dangerous use of asbestos was in shipbuilding and in the construction of shipyards. Virtually every Navy ship built prior to 1980 contained large amounts of asbestos that was especially prevalent in the engine and boiler rooms where fireproofing is required. As a result, many of our nation's veterans were placed at extreme risk of asbestos exposure while serving their country and a great number of them have developed mesothelioma.

Types of Asbestos

While there are six types of asbestos, three were most commonly used in construction and the manufacture of products. They are chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. Actinolite, anthophyllite and tremolite are the other three types of asbestos that exist.


Chrysotile was most commonly used in the manufacture of products. It is also known as white asbestos. Insulating and fireproofing were the primary applications where chrysotile was used. A highly versatile material, chrysotile could be woven into cloth to make fireproof theater curtains and protective clothing. It was also commonly found in cements and automotive products including brake shoes, brake pads and clutches.


Amosite asbestos is also known as brown asbestos. Next to chrysotile asbestos, it was the most commonly used type of asbestos that workers were exposed to. Amosite was typically used as insulation in the construction of buildings and factories as well as in acoustical applications and situations that required anti-condensation materials.


Crocidolite, known as blue asbestos, represents less than 10% of asbestos use in the United States. This is primarily because crocidolite is more brittle than chrysotile and amosite and therefore tends to break more easily. It was most commonly used in the manufacture of yarns and rope lagging and to reinforce plastic materials.

Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a highly hazardous substance. When it is disturbed or damaged in any way, its tiny, microscopic fibers become airborne. Those working in the vicinity of these airborne fibers are then at risk of inhaling them.

Navy personnel working in poorly ventilated and close quarters on ships were highly susceptible to breathing in airborne fibers. DIY homeowners repairing or replacing asbestos products like vinyl floor tiles, duct/pipe insulation or joint compound may have been exposed. Aluminum and steel plant workers were often around asbestos cloth and other fireproofing materials. Auto mechanics and those working in other professions also risked exposure.

The risk of developing mesothelioma directly relates to how often the person is exposed to asbestos and how long these exposures last. People exposed at an early age, for a long period of time, and at higher levels of fiber density are most likely to develop cancer.

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How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma and Other Cancers

When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they become embedded in mucus membranes inside the air passages, similar to how a small sliver becomes embedded in the skin. The long, thin, fibers are sharp, and can move through lung tissue into the pleural lining of the lung and chest wall. When mesothelioma develops in the pleura, it is known as pleural mesothelioma, which is the most common type.

Asbestos fibers can also find their way to other membranes in the chest, abdomen and other areas of the body. Peritoneal mesothelioma forms in the abdomen, possibly the result of coughing up and swallowing inhaled asbestos fibers.

Although the risk of developing mesothelioma increases with the amount of asbestos exposure, it is clear that genetic factors also play a role in determining who develops the disease. This explains why not all persons exposed to high levels of asbestos particles develop mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibers can also damage cells of the lung causing asbestosis or lung cancer. The risk of lung cancer among people exposed to asbestos is 7 times higher than the general population. While asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer are the three most frequent causes of disability / death among people with heavy asbestos exposure, cancer of the larynx, pancreas, esophagus, colon, and kidney has also been linked to asbestos exposure, but the increased risk is not as great as with lung cancer.

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