Asbestos Basics

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What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral that is mined from the earth and then crushed, carded and separated into fibers. There are four primary types of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite and tremolite. All of these fibers are strong, durable and resistant to heat and fire; consequently, asbestos products have been incorporated into thousands of products as either a bonding agent or for heat insulation. Among the most commonly used asbestos products are pipecovering and block insulation, cement, textiles, gaskets, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roofs, bulkheads of ships and brake linings. In the normal use of these products, millions of microscopic asbestos fibers are released into the air, where they are breathed by unsuspecting workers. Once the fibers are in the lungs, they cause disease.

Is Asbestos still a problem?

Asbestos is still a problem because millions of tons of asbestos products have been used in the United States and elsewhere for the past 70 years, and many of these asbestos-containing products remain in buildings, ships, industrial facilities and other environments, where the fibers can become airborne and then breathed into the lungs of unsuspecting workers.

Whenever old asbestos products are repaired or disturbed, they release millions of airborne asbestos fibers that are invisible to the naked eye. When these invisible fibers are breathed into the lungs, many of them stay there for decades, like a time bomb. This delay between exposure to asbestos and the onset of disease can be 40 years or more. Doctors refer to this delay between the time of exposure and the time of sickness as the latency period. The latency period for asbestos disease is usually 20-40 years or more; consequently, people are still getting sick today (and will continue to get sick in the future) from asbestos exposure that occurred 20 to 40 years ago. Likewise, people who are exposed today or yesterday or even ten years ago will not get sick for many years to come.

What products contain Asbestos?

It is impossible to list all of the products that have, at one time or another, contained asbestos. Asbestos was used in over 500 different applications as a heat or fire retardant, to add strength to other materials or as a binder.

Some of the more common asbestos-containing products are pipe covering, insulating cement, insulating block, asbestos cloth, gaskets, packing materials, thermal seals, refractory and boiler insulation materials, transite board, asbestos cement pipe, fireproofing spray, joint compound, vinyl floor tile, ceiling tile, mastics, adhesives, coatings, acoustical textures, duct insulation for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, roofing products, insulated electrical wire and panels, and brake and clutch assemblies.

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