History & Overview

Asbestos is actually just a classification for a six minerals that all have the same characteristics and qualities – specifically their fibrous nature. The most common forms of asbestos are chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. With chrysotile being the most predominantly used form of asbestos.

The earliest reports of asbestos mining and use date back 4500 years, with reported usage of asbestos by the Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Persians. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution did asbestos start to see widespread mining and production. By the late 1800s, large scale asbestos mining operations were started in Canada, Russia and South Africa.

The popularity of asbestos was largely due to its ability to resist fire, electricity and heat. Asbestos also proved to be very useful in sound absorption and became a very popular way to improve the tensile strength of plaster, concrete and cement when mixed before application. By the 1950s, asbestos was used in thousands of different materials in the US and around the world. Asbestos use in the US peaked in 1973 – with 804,000 tons being used. World usage peaked in 1977 with 4.8million tons being used.

Clearly, asbestos was such a widely used product in the 20th century that it is difficult to find a material or product from that time that wasn’t infused with asbestos.

Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos is a very serious matter. Fortunately, asbestos is only cancer causing when disturbed, broken apart or damaged by water or air erosion. You’ve probably heard before that unless you absolutely need to remove asbestos, it’s generally best to leave it alone. This is generally the best advice to follow regarding asbestos in your home – unless there is a situation where the asbestos is routinely being touched, disturbed or damaged.

Contrary to what most people assume, researchers spent most of the 20th century studying asbestos and its related health hazards. Even though it took until 1989 for the EPA to ban the use of asbestos in the US, scientists were studying the health risks of asbestos as early as 1900..

It just so happened the understood health risks at the time weren’t serious enough (in the eyes of the industry, government and public) to slow down the production of this multi-billion dollar worldwide industry.

It’s important to note that the latency period for asbestos-related illnesses is typically 10-40 years. So a lot of the asbestos workers in the 50s and 60s didn’t start to show signs of lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma until the late 70s and 80s. By that time, the explosion in the volume of asbestos-related deaths meant the government felt compelled to step in and protect the public health from the risks of asbestos.

Asbestos-Related Illnesses

There are three major illnesses directly related to asbestos exposure.

Lung Cancer is typically identified as a malignant tumor or growth on the bronchi in the lungs. These tumors reproduce rapidly, constricting the air passages of the lungs and damaging the surrounding tissues. The latency period between asbestos exposure and the onset of lung cancer is roughly 20 years.

Asbestosis is characterized as the scarring of the lungs as a result of inhaling the microscopic barbed fibers of asbestos. This scarring – known as fibrosis – diminishes the elasticity and flexibility of the lungs, making breathing more difficult for the exposed person. Chronic shortness of breath is often an early indicator of asbestosis, because the lung are unable to expand and contract naturally. The average latency period for asbestosis is 10-20 years. Studies also show that a “relatively high” amount of exposure to asbestos is required to develop asbestosis.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that damages the lining of the chest or the abdominal wall. Again, microscopic asbestos fibers lodge themselves into the lining of the chest cavity, causing inflammation and irritation of the cells. The affected cells will sometimes under genetic mutation because of the asbestos fibers, resulting in cancerous mutations of those cells. The latency period for mesothelioma is typically 20-40 and the disease is almost always fatal.

Inspections & Identifying Asbestos

There is no way to identify if a building material does or does not contain asbestos only by looking at it. A building material has to be tested by an accredited laboratory to be 100% regarding its asbestos content.

You put your and your family’s health at great risk if you disturb asbestos-containing building materials without knowing for certain that your home is asbestos free. Taking a picture of your attic insulation and posting it on a DIY message board to see if it “looks like” asbestos is a very dangerous game to play.

Again, most asbestos fibers have been ground too finely during production to be seen by the naked eye. Additionally, there are some asbestos fibers that can only be seen under 30,000x magnification.

Don’t trust your life to some stranger on an internet message board. If they were as knowledgeable about asbestos as they’d like to think, they would tell you to NEVER assume if a material contains asbestos or not. Especially a material installed any time before 1990.

Asbestos is banned in the US… right?

Yes and no. It’s certain to come as a shock to a lot of people – but use of asbestos is not completely banned in the US.

Just a little history: in 1970, the EPA banned the use of asbestos in sprayed-on applications, such as fireproofing. In 1976, additional regulations were placed on asbestos (along with radon, lead, etc.)

It wasn’t until July of 1989 that the EPA established a complete ban on all materials containing asbestos in the US. The “Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule” (ABPR), as it was called, didn’t last very long in the US courts. By October of ‘91, the Fifth Circuit Court had overturned most of the EPA regulation as a result of the case “Corrosion Proof Fittings v. the Environmental Protection Agency”.

So what stayed asbestos materials banned? In addition to sprayed-on asbestos, these six categories of asbestos-containing materials remained banned under the 1989 ABPR:

Corrugated paper
Commercial paper
Flooring felt
Rollboard
Speciality paper
New uses of asbestos

And then here’s the list of products that were un-banned by the Fifth Circuit ruling:

Asbestos-cement corrugated sheet, asbestos-cement flat sheet, asbestos clothing, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl-asbestos floor tile, asbestos-cement shingle, millboard, asbestos-cement pipe, automatic transmission components, clutch facings, friction materials, disc brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, gaskets, non-roofing coatings and roof coatings.

As you can see, there are still a number of products that have the potential to contain asbestos. This is why, under federal regulations, any renovation or demolition carried out on any public or commercial building requires a complete asbestos inspection before work can begin. This rule still applies even if the commercial building was constructed after 1989, simply because of the possibility that asbestos-containing materials could have been used in construction.

What about residential buildings?

Private, residential buildings and home do not fall under any EPA regulation regarding renovation or demolition (unless the building is being demolished to make way for a public works project). This means that an accredited asbestos inspection is not required by federal law before renovation or demolition.

Does that mean it’s safe to begin major renovations on a home – especially one built before the 90s – without an inspection of building materials first? No, it’s probably not safe. Blown-in insulation, plaster walls and ceilings, flooring, roofing material, plumbing and piping all have the potential to contain asbestos. And for many of these materials, it is not possible to determine if they contain asbestos without microscopy sampling conducted by a lab.