What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is set of six naturally occurring silicate material having unique properties such as high strength, sound absorbent, resistance against fire and heat. Because of these desirable properties asbestos has been used commercially especially in industries such as construction, maritime, automotive etc. since long.  The names of these six minerals which constitute asbestos are:

  • Amosite
  • Chrysotile
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite

Types of asbestos

Out of the above mentioned six minerals, three are used more commonly. These three are also known by their colour.

  • White asbestos (Chrysotile) : This asbestos is obtained from serpentinite rocks which are found across the globe. This is the most widely used asbestos type. According to estimates it accounts for more than 90% of total asbestos production across the world. It found its uses in variety of industries such as textiles (it can be woven into cloth), boilers, pipe insulations, tiles, etc.
  • Brown asbestos (Amosite) : Brown asbestos is much less common both in occurrence and usage.  It is mostly obtained from South Africa. It predominately found in thermal insulation products.
  • Blue asbestos (Crocidolite) : This type is found in southern Africa and Australia.

Important Asbestos Characteristics

Asbestos has been made popular because of its unique properties. Some of the most important are:

  • Strength: Asbestos is comparable to steel in terms of strength
  • Insulator: Asbestos is one the best naturally occurring insulator and thus finds uses in boilers, pipes etc.
  • Can be mixed with other products easily : Asbestos can be easily included in other products to give them strength and insulation properties. One such example in tiles used in construction industry, where asbestos is mixed with cement / ceramic.
  • Chemically un-reactive : Asbestos does not react easily with other substances and thus it is tough to destroy
  • Thin fibres: Asbestos fibre is very thin, it can be 700 times smaller than human hair. These fibres provides some of the great physical properties to asbestos

Asbestos around youasbestos diseases

Asbestos has been used in various industries for almost 100 years and its all around us present in the products we use and houses we live. Some major places you can find asbestos are:

  • House / buildings / construction industry : Asbestos is present in many products such as floor / roof tiles, insulation for wall and roofs,  cement, cement pipes, fire proofing which is sprayed on buildings, steel reinforced beams, shingles (roof ), textured coating,  fire doors, etc.
  • Products and appliances : brake lining, boilers, clutch pads, insulation for pipes
  • Heavy industry : maritime – ships

Asbestos as a cause of diseases

Asbestos fibres are very thin and ones they are suspended in air, they tend to remain their for hours and sometimes days. When asbestos fibre laden air is taken in, these asbestos fibres get into out lungs and then get lodged in. They remain in lungs and body tissues as there is no way with our body to remove them. This accumulation of asbestos in body leads to various diseases including, lung cancer,  asbestosis, mesothelioma, etc.

Contrary to general perception, asbestos is not harmful as such unless it releases fibres or dust in air. For example, an insulated pipe with asbestos will present no harm unless it is drilled, which will release fine asbestos in air. Similarly, asbestos in ships as such are not harmful till the time ship goes for ship breaking where bad practises of ship breaking may lead to asbestos exposure. In many cases the fibres are trapped in our nose and throat and are removed.

Thus, there are some situations when asbestos is more dangerous than others. e.g. a floor tile where asbestos is mixed is less dangerous than sprayed asbestos insulation. This is because it is tough to get asbestos out of a hard floor tile (unless you drill it or break it) but as sprayed insulation can come out even by hand scratching!

While asbestos containing products are not dangerous in their usual conditions, as time passes, due to heat, weather, vibrations, usage and physical impact the chances of exposure to asbestos increases.  This is the reason why asbestos products are now banned in more than 50 countries. In USA, it is allowed only in a limited places such as automobile industry.

Diseases due to asbestos exposure

It took a long time to relate the lung cancer and related disease happening to workers in asbestos related industries. It even took more time for governments to regulate the usage of asbestos and also enforce guidelines of asbestos usage. This has for sure helped save life of many across the world, but as the usage of asbestos continues so are incidences of diseases associated with it.  based on statistics, , lung cancer,  asbestosis and mesothelioma are three most common and severe disease associated with asbestos exposure.

  • Lung cancer due to asbestos: Studies have proved that people exposed to asbestos in unsafe manner have higher probability of developing lung cancer. The risk increases multi-fold if the exposed person also smokes.
  • Asbestosis: Asbestosis is a chronic respiratory disease caused when inhaled asbestos fibres scar the lungs. Symptoms of asbestosis include, chest pain; cough; shortness of breath with exertion, etc. Unfortunately there is no cure to asbestosis till now and thus the disease is usually fatal or disabling. The patients should stop exposure to asbestos (which generally means leave their jobs).
  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a form of cancer which that developed as cells originating from mesothelium gets transformed. Mesothelium is the protective lining and covers many of our body organs. Some common occurrences are heart, lungs, chest and abdomen. While asbestos is not considered as the only cause of Mesothelioma, it is indeed the most dominant one. The highest risk of Mesothelioma is to asbestos mine workers, asbestos factory workers, installers (insulation, etc.) and ship breakers. People living around asbestos mines, factories, ship breaking yards also face risk as suspended asbestos fibres get mixed in environment easily.  As asbestosis, there is no cure for Mesothelioma too.

Awareness regarding asbestos related problems

Most of the developed countries have created regulations regarding asbestos usage. Some have altogether banned their usage while other such as USA have limited them. The awareness regarding disease caused by asbestos remains low, especially in developing countries. China and India – the two developing giants have almost no regulations to protect people related to asbestos industries. Asbestos is very common in these places and used as roofing.

It is unfortunate that inspite of sound medical proofs, asbestos is still being used without precautions and warnings in many countries across the world – risking lives of thousands of people who get exposed to it knowingly or unknowingly.