Asbestos is made of a set of naturally occurring silicate minerals with the following in common: long, thin fibrous crystals and visible fibers containing millions of fibrils. This is referred to as their eponymous asbestiform habit. Blue, green, brown and white are the colors it is commonly known by.
In the 19th century, asbestos became popular amongst manufacturers and builders due its desirable physical properties such as fire-resistance, tensile strength, heat, electricity, affordability as well as sound absorption. These features made it ideal for use in building and electric insulation, pipe and ceiling insulation and in the making of fire-proof vests. To harness its fire resistant property, the fibers were either mixed with cement or woven into fabric.
Asbestos’ popularity continued to soar through most of the 20th century until the health hazards of asbestos dust were discovered and its use in mainstream construction was prohibited by law. Currently, it is banned in over 50 countries and its use is restricted in others.
Prolonged exposure to asbestos can cause fatal diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis (which is a type of pneumoconiosis) and even lung cancer. There are six types of asbestos minerals. They are all carcinogenic but have different chemical compositions and functions.
- Chrysotile; the most widely used, identifiable by its longer and curlier fibers was argued not to be as toxic but scientific studies confirmed it extremely hazardous to human health.
- Actinolite; which has straight fibers and is dark in color was combined with vermiculite to make insulation used in construction materials such as dry walls and paint.
- Anthophyllite deposits were less common and less used. It was mined primarily in Finland and partly in Georgia and North Carolina.
- Tremolite was commonly found alongside deposits of talc, vermiculite and chrysotile. Vermiculite was installed in many homes in form of attic insulation.
- Crocidolite, also blue asbestos, was the least used because it wasn’t as resistant to heat. It was also extremely thin and could penetrate human skin making it the most harmful.
- Amosite sourced in South Africa was considered more harmful than chrysotile. It had shorter and straighter fibers, was brown in color and was mostly used in construction products.
Unfortunately, asbestos is still found in many materials and products. This has resulted in the gradual emergence of negative health symptoms years after exposure. Occupations in the construction industry continue to be the worst hit with shipbuilding and electrical power industries continuing to record abnormally high occurrences.
What’s more, most homes built before the 1980s are often filled with asbestos and all it takes is a little wear and tear (which is inevitable with time) to dislodge fibers in to the air. It can be found in floor tiles, plumbing, furnaces, roofs and fireplaces. Modern shipping container houses may also contain traces of asbestos since it was used in repair, maintenance and construction of ships by the military. Fear of this has seen many resort to asbestos testing to ensure they aren’t unknowingly being exposed.
Asbestos testing can be done by professionals or using DIY kits.