Despite a good number of people knowing that asbestos was banned and can cause mesothelioma (cancer), you might be surprised to learn that a good portion of the population does not know what asbestos actually is, or of its rich history.
Today, we’re going to explore this controversial substance.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos in its natural state, is a thin, fibrous, silicate mineral crystal. It was once widely used in our modern infrastructure because it was cheap, abundant and exhibited desirable properties. Some of these properties include being a good insulator, excellent sound absorber, average tensile strength, and resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage.
The earliest recorded use of asbestos was found to be at least 4,500 years ago when archeologists discovered asbestos being used in cooking utensils and strengthened earthenware pots. Modern usage became widespread in 1858 when the Johns Company began commercial mining of the mineral for use as insulation.
By the mid 20th century asbestos was used in fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes, fireplace cement, acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, and drywall joint compound.
Why Was Asbestos Banned?
In the early 1900’s, health workers started to notice a significant number of people with severe lung problems and a number of early lung-related deaths in towns that mined asbestos. The first case of ‘asbestosis’ was diagnosed in Britain in 1924. By the 30’s, the UK laid down some regulations regarding ventilation and made asbestosis an excusable work related disease.
Just ten years prior, the term mesothelioma was first used in U.S medical literature. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that mesothelioma’s association with asbestos was first mentioned. Even more studies were done within the following decade, and the evidence against asbestos became overwhelming.
Many scientists and researchers claim that the United States government and asbestos industry didn’t act quick enough to inform the public of dangers, and in reducing public exposure. They were proven right in the late 1970s when court documents proved that asbestos industry officials knew of asbestos risks and dangers since the 1930s and had intentionally concealed them from the public.
Why Is It So Dangerous?
The two minerals amosite and crocidolite contained in asbestos are largely responsible for its hazardous nature because of the long persistence (staying power) in a persons lungs. Because of this ‘staying power’, it acts as a prolonged irritant which can cause tumors and cancers like mesothelioma to develop. Your body attempts to remove and attack the foreign substance (what it perceives as an invader), it fails.
This repeated failure, over time, leads to mutation as cells try to adapt. When this mutation goes out of control and becomes ‘runaway’, it is called cancer.
Use of asbestos has been banned by most countries but it still is prevalent in society thanks to its widespread use until the 70s. It is believed that more than 1,000 tons of asbestos were released into the air during the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York city on 9/11. Inhalation of asbestos and other toxins are thought to be the cause of the unusually high death rate of emergency service workers from cancer since the disaster. Currently, Russia is the world’s largest exporter with Canada coming in second. The largest consumers are India and China, with high demand in other developing countries.
Regulations in the US allow for products to contain asbestos, as long as those products contain less than 1% asbestos. The most common asbestos containing products manufactured today are brake pads, roofing materials, vinyl tile, automobile clutches, cement piping, home insulation, corrugated sheeting, and custom potting soils.
Destruction and Recycling
In most countries, asbestos is typically disposed of as hazardous waste in landfills. Asbestos can also be recycled by turning it into a harmless silicate glass. Heating it up to 1000–1250 °C produces a mixture of non-hazardous silicates, and at temperatures above 1250 °C transforms asbestos into a silicate glass.