Asbestos: What Is it and How is it Dangerous?

Brian Oram, Licensed Professional Geologist

Asbestos: What Is it and How is it Dangerous?

Protecting your home, work, and community from this Cancer-Causing Substance.

Asbestos – What is it?

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral created by geochemical processes within our planet. Although infamous for its link to cancer, it also has many potential beneficial properties. The difficulty is to avoid the negative aspects of this potentially dangerous mineral while enjoying its positive aspects.

In the metaphysical view of the world, Asbestos is believed to remove negative and dark energy and control or protect against fire and corrosion of metal, two of the five phases in Chinese medicine.   

If Asbestos is used correctly, its presence is known, and the user is informed and educated, the risks of exposure can be managed.

Regarding Asbestos, it's important that you DO NOT PANIC, but Get Informed / Get Tested

Asbestos is a rather "fibrous" silicate mineral, i.e., it is a silicon-oxygen compound (silicate) whose atoms are arranged in such a way as to give it a fibrous property. Because of the mineral makeup and structure, the asbestos fibers resist heat transfer, do not burn, and serve as excellent insulators. By the mid-20th century (around 1975), Asbestos was used for: building materials, joint compounds, heat-resistant fabrics, shingles, insulation on steam and hot water pipes, stove pipe insulation, textured paints, patching compounds, appliances, flooring associated with wood-burning stoves, and automotive parts. The word ‘Asbestos’ applies to 6 types of naturally-occurring fibrous minerals that are found in two mineral families: the serpentines (chrysotile) and The amphiboles (Amosite, Crocidolite, Tremolite, Actinolite, and Anthophyllite). Of the asbestos mined and used today, 95% of it is chrysotile and 5% is crocidolite.  

Fact: Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite products, asbestos-based insulation, and other building materials such as popcorn ceilings were produced until 1990.

Mineralogy, Sources, What is It? Where was it Used?

Serpentine

Serpentine is not a single mineral but part of a group of minerals that fits this geochemical formula:

(X)2-3Si2O5(OH)4, where:

X = Mg, Fe2+, Fe3+, Ni, Al, Zn, or Mn.  

These minerals form in areas where ultramafic rocks (igneous and meta-igneous rocks with low silica content) undergo hydrothermal metamorphism. Most serpentinites form in the oceanic crust, which is heated from below and infiltrated by heated ocean water. Hydrothermal metamorphism occurs when hot, volatile solutions percolate into and react with the original rock. Therefore, the water's high heat and chemical makeup cause the rock to be altered.  These rocks tend to appear green, yellow, black, and white, and the ones with a fibrous shape or habit are Asbestos. Serpentine Asbestos (chrysotile) has long, curly fibers that can be woven into fabrics.  It is important to note that not all types of serpentine are toxic, and some varieties like lizardite are heat-resistant gemstones commonly used in meditation and in decorations and jewelry. (Source)

Chrysotile

Chrysotile or white Asbestos is the most commonly encountered form of Asbestos, accounting for approximately 95% of the Asbestos in the United States. It is a hydrated magnesium silicate (Mg3Si2O5(OH)4) with a white to grayish-green color that is soft, fibrous, and silky. Chrysotile has fine, sharp, and curly fibers. Because of its size, chrysotile has caused mesothelioma, i.e., cancer of the abdominal cavity linings and the lungs, but also cancer of the larynx, ovaries, pharynx, stomach, and rectal cancer.

Amphibole

Amphibole  minerals are most abundant in igneous rocks that form deep beneath the Earth's surface. Amphiboles can be green, black, colorless, white, yellow, blue, or brown. Amphibole asbestos has straight, needle-like fibers that are more brittle than those of serpentine Asbestos. The chemical composition and variability of the amphiboles may be expressed by the general formula AB2C5T8O22W2, where:

  • A = □, Na, K, Ca, Pb2+  (cations ions with a size similar to sodium)
  • B = Li, Na, Mg, Fe2+, Mn2+, Ca
  • C = Li, Mg, Fe2+, Mn2+, Zn, Co, Ni, Al, Fe3+, Cr3+, Mn3+, V3+, Ti4+, Zr 
  • T = Si, Al, Ti4+, Be;
  • W = (OH), F, Cl, O-2

Note: The "□" character above stands for zero. If a "0" was used it may be confused with "O" for Oxygen.

(Source)

Amphibole asbestos subtypes include amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite.

Amosite

Amosite asbestos is known as "brown asbestos," and it is very easy to inhale or swallow. This form of Asbestos was used in building materials, insulation, insulators’ cement, and chemical insulation.

Crocidolite

Crocidolite Asbestos or "blue asbestos" is very easy to inhale or swallow and is sharp. Crocidolite is less heat resistant and is more commonly found in cement, some types of tiles, and insulation components.

Tremolite

Tremolite asbestos has a dark green to milky white color with a needle-like structure. This form of Asbestos was used in woven fabrics used for construction but also found in paints, sealants, insulation, automotive parts, fireproofing sprays, roofing, and plumbing materials. In the 1970s, this was the form of Asbestos that was linked to cancer risks associated with the use of talc (contaminated with tremolite) products and cosmetics.

Tremolite is the form of Asbestos associated with mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.

(Source Asbestos Contamination in Talc-Based Cosmetics: An Invisible Cancer Risk)

Actinolite

Actinolite asbestos is a dark green mineral made of sharp, needle-like fibers. The actinolite form of Asbestos was previously used in products and materials such as cement, insulation, paints, sealants, and drywall (sheetrock).

Anthophyllite

Anthophyllite Asbestos is a less common form of Asbestos that appears brown to yellowish and has rather long and needle-like fibers that are easy to ingest and inhale.  This form of Asbestos was used in insulation materials, some cement manufacturing, and flooring.

Asbestos-Related Diseases and Exposure

Asbestos is a dangerous substance and should be avoided and only used with proper training and personal protective equipment. The health effects or risks depend on a number of factors like exposure route (inhalation, ingestion, or something else), type of asbestos, quantity, length of time exposed, other health issues, and other lifestyle factors such as smoking that can have synergistic effects.

Exposure to Asbestos can increase the chances of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Available research suggests a link between Asbestos to cancer of the voice box (larynx), ovaries, and possibly the stomach, pharynx, and colon. Exposure to Asbestos can also be associated with pleural disease and asbestosis.

Mitigating Your Risk

If you are concerned about exposure to Asbestos, the first step is to understand and review your current and historical exposure to Asbestos, your overall health condition, your current lifestyle, and your potential for exposure where you live and work.

Natural-Occurring Deposits

Naturally-occurring asbestos deposits are located throughout the United States. The states with natural asbestos deposits include California, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, Wyoming. The following is a map created by The U.S. Geological Survey related to naturally-occurring asbestos deposits. Asbestos mining no longer takes place in the U.S. Map of Asbestos Mines

Your Community and Age of Home/Village

If your home was built between the 1920s and the early 1980s, you likely have some asbestos-containing materials in your home or part of your home. My home was built in the late 1950s, and I had asbestos shingles on the side of my house. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the construction industry used Asbestos in siding (including my home), flooring, popcorn ceilings, attic insulation, and pipe and furnace insulation. Asbestos has been found in old water pipes that were installed in the 1930s.

Since the 1800s, Asbestos has been used in a wide range of products. Asbestos has been banned in over 50 countries, but in the United States, it still can be found in some consumer products.   Asbestos has been found in cosmetics, kids’ makeup, some "talc" products, and some Chinese-made products (crayons, crime lab kits, talc).

Asbestos exposure can also occur in the excavation of artificial or natural deposits that contain Asbestos. This exposure can occur during the demolition of older buildings or during natural disasters that disturb deposits or debris or cause the uncontrolled destruction of buildings that contain Asbestos.  

Potential action may include having a Neighborhood Report Prepared (add link), getting your home Tested, learning the water source for your home, considering having your home inspected, and learning about consumer products that may contain Asbestos.

Action Plan on Asbestos

1. Learn about Asbestos, routes of exposure, historical sources, and routes of entry

2. Learn under what conditions you and your family are vulnerable (at home, in the community, or at work?)

3. Act – Get Testing done!

4. Act – At work, Get Training and implement a workplace health and safety plan!

5. Maybe you should not do it yourself – hire a professional!

6. Your community – what and where are the historic hazards associated with Asbestos?

Even though asbestos mining has stopped and we aren't producing asbestos-laden products, we can still be exposed to Asbestos at work. If you or a family member are actively involved with construction, demolition, are a firefighter or emergency responder, work in the schools, custodial or maintenance, automotive, shipping, or railroad industries, you may have been exposed to Asbestos.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to institute and ensure participation in a worker training program and

The EPA regulations governing schools require that all school staff custodial and maintenance workers who conduct any activities that may result in the disturbance of asbestos-containing building material (ACBM), receive training.

(Source)

Resources

Get Tested

Asbestos Testing Kit - Option 1

Asbestos Testing Kit - Option 2

Mold Testing Kit

Get Informed

A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, 7th Edition: Complete Information About the Harmful and Desirable Ingredients Found in Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals

Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos Is Killing

Get Training

Asbestos Awareness - 2 Hour Training