Guide to Asbestos Part I: Asbestos, the Basics

This is a Four-Part Guide to everything you need to know about asbestos. From what it is, to why it’s used to what the dangers are. Part I covers the What and Why of asbestos; Part II details the serious risks associated with asbestos; Part III goes over the 20th century boom in asbestos use and Part IV recaps on where we are today with asbestos use in America.

Guide to Asbestos Part I: Asbestos, the Basics

Asbestos — it’s a word we’ve learned to associate with Danger!

But there’s more to the story.

The first thing to know is what it is: mineral fibers, fibers that can only be positively identified with a microscope. And while these fibers are teeny-tiny, they are durable, flexible, lightweight and resistant to fire, electrical or chemical damage, and they can also absorb sound and have a high tensile strength. What’s more, there is an abundance of asbestos ready to be mined in the natural environment and so, no matter how steep the demand for asbestos, it always came cheap.

That’s why asbestos was used for decades across the United States: Because asbestos was a cheap material that was durable — meaning it was great for construction materials like roofing shingles and insulation, and because it was cheap and yet resistant to fire, so it was great for materials not just used in the home but even in ships used in war zones.

“There is NO safe type of asbestos.”

And you’ve heard this one before: When something gets popular and it’s cheap? Well, asbestos was added to a number of home products ranging from toasters to beauty supplies and even to multiple vehicle parts like the good ol’ brakes. The asbestos industry at the time even went so far as to put ads in magazines and on TV supporting asbestos as a cost-effective and healthy contribution to the home.

Only it wasn’t. In fact:

“Inhaling asbestos can lead to a number of serious diseases, including the rare form of cancer in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, chest and heart known as mesothelioma.”

What’s more — it was that same durability that made asbestos so popular to manufacturers that makes asbestos so dangerous. Here’s what we mean: Because asbestos fibers are teeny-tiny (almost .02 the diameter of a string of human hair, to be exact), asbestos can be very easily inhaled. And once inhaled, asbestos fibers stick to the respiratory system like the lining of the lungs or even the inner cavity tissue. Yet, asbestos is durable, and so, once asbestos fibers are inhaled and stuck to the respiratory system, they do not un-stick easily. In fact, asbestos is very difficult for the body to break down or otherwise get rid of.

The good news is that asbestos harms people differently than some other toxic chemicals or substance: because asbestos must be disturbed for a person to be exposed to asbestos and potentially breathe in (or ingest) its fibers. The bad news is that asbestos, once inhaled, is not just dangerous, it’s often deadly.

For all of those men and women who worked with asbestos or had a family member who worked at a factory that used asbestos, or for all those men, women and children who lived in homes filled with asbestos (from the insulation to the floor tiles), we’re not just talking a popular fad from some time ago. Instead, we’re talking life and death.

To learn more about the dangers of asbestos, read on. To share this guide with those you care about, send this link.