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Asbestos Fibers

[Because Asbestos Abatement is such a specialized field, Florida Indoor Air Quality does not do testing for it. We provide the following information for your personal knowledge.]

What Are Asbestos Fibers?

Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals exploited commercially for their desirable physical properties. They all have in common their asbestiform habit, long, (1:20) thin fibrous crystals. The inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma (a formerly rare cancer strongly associated with exposure to amphibole asbestos), and asbestosis (a type of pneumoconiosis). Long term exposure to asbestos is more likely to cause health problems, as asbestos exists in the ambient air at low levels, which itself does not cause health problems. The European Union has banned all use of asbestos and extraction, manufacture and processing of asbestos products.

Asbestos became increasingly popular among manufacturers and builders in the late 19th century because of its sound absorption, average tensile strength, and its resistance to heat, electrical and chemical damage. When asbestos is used for its resistance to fire or heat, the fibers are often mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats.

Asbestos was used in some products for its heat resistance, and in the past was used on electric oven and hotplate wiring for its electrical insulation at elevated temperature, and in buildings for its flame-retardant and insulating properties, tensile strength, flexibility, and resistance to chemicals.

Asbestos was named by the ancient Greeks. They had already recognized certain hazards of the material. The Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted that the material damaged lungs of slaves who wove it into cloth. Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, is said to have had a tablecloth made of asbestos. Wealthy Persians, who bought asbestos imported over the Hindu Kush, amazed guests by cleaning the cloth by simply exposing it to fire. Some of the Persians believed the fiber was fur from an animal that lived in fire and died when exposed to water. While traveling to China, Marco Polo described observing miraculous garments that were cleaned by being placed in fires. These garments were likely made from asbestos.

Some archeologists believe that ancients made shrouds of asbestos, wherein they burned the bodies of their kings, in order to preserve only their ashes, and prevent their being mixed with those of wood or other combustible materials commonly used in funeral pyres.Others assert that the ancients used asbestos to make perpetual wicks for sepulchral or other lamps. In more recent centuries, asbestos was indeed used for this purpose. Although asbestos causes skin to itch upon contact, ancient literature indicates that it was prescribed for diseases of the skin, and particularly for the itch. It is possible that they used the term asbestos for soapstone, because the two terms have often been confused throughout history.

Asbestos became more widespread during the industrial revolution; in the 1866 it was used as insulation in the U.S. and Canada. Development of the first commercial asbestos mine began in 1874 in the Appalachian foothills of Quebec. By the mid 20th century uses included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, and drywall joint compound.

Thousands of tons of asbestos were used in World War II ships to wrap the pipes, line the boilers, and cover engine and turbine parts. Asbestos fibers were once used in automobile brake pads, shoes, and clutch discs. Kent, the first filtered cigarette on the market, used crocidolite asbestos in its “Micronite” filter from 1952 to 1956.

In Japan, particularly after World War II, asbestos was used in the manufacture of ammonium sulfate for purposes of rice production, sprayed upon the ceilings, iron skeletons, and walls of railroad cars and buildings (during the 1960s), and used for energy efficiency reasons as well. Production of asbestos in Japan peaked in 1974 and went through ups and downs until about 1990, when production began to drop severely.

Health Problems of Asbestos

Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long time period. People who become ill from inhaling asbestos are often those who are exposed on a day-to-day basis in a job where they worked directly with the material. As a person’s exposure to fibers increases, because of being exposed to higher concentrations of fibers and/or by being exposed for a longer time, then that person’s risk of disease also increases. Disease is very unlikely to result from a single, high-level exposure, or from a short period of exposure to lower levels.

The first documented death related to asbestos was in 1906. In the early 1900s researchers began to notice a large number of early deaths and lung problems in asbestos mining towns. The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in the UK in 1924. By the 1930s, the UK regulated ventilation and made asbestosis an excusable work related disease, about ten years sooner than the U.S. The term mesothelioma was first used in medical literature in 1931; its association with asbestos was first noted sometime in the 1940s.

The United States government and asbestos industry have been criticized for not acting quickly enough to inform the public of dangers, and to reduce public exposure. In the late 1970s court documents proved that asbestos industry officials knew of asbestos dangers since the 1930s and had concealed them from the public.

In the European Union and Australia it has recently been banned as a potential health hazard and is not used at all. Japan is moving in the same direction, but more slowly. Revelations that hundreds of workers had died in Japan over the previous few decades from diseases related to asbestos sparked a scandal in mid-2005. Tokyo had, in 1971, ordered companies handling asbestos to install ventilators and check health on a regular basis; however, the Japanese government did not ban crocidolite and amosite until 1995, and a full-fledged ban on asbestos was implemented in October 2004.

Other Health Related Diseases:

    • Asbestos warts: caused when the sharp fibers lodge in the skin and are overgrown causing benign callus-like growths.
    • Pleural plaques: discrete fibrous or partially calcified thickened area which can be seen on X-rays of individuals exposed to asbestos. Although pleural plaques are themselves asymptomatic, in some patients this develops into pleural thickening.
    • Diffuse pleural thickening: similar to above and can sometimes be associated with asbestosis. Usually no symptoms shown but if exposure is extensive, it can cause lung impairment.

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