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Asbestos - From Miracle Mineral To Mesothelioma Menace

By Grant Davis

During World War II Asbestos was hailed by many as a miracle mineral. Almost anything could be built or manufactured from this mineral. The building and construction industries used it as an additive to strengthen cement and plastics. Asbestos fibers can be separated into thin threads which do not conduct electricity and are not affected by heat or chemicals.

The four main types of asbestos are: Amosite with brown fibers, Anthophyllite with gray fibers, white Christie, and blue Crocidolite. Chrysotile has curly fibers while the other three have rod like fibers. These fibers break into dust quite easily and drift in the air. They can stick on skin, clothing, and can easily be swallowed or inhaled.

Use of asbestos skyrocketed during World War II. Shipbuilding used asbestos extensively in freighters and support vessels to insulate boilers, steam pipes and hot water pipes. Asbestos became the miracle construction material as it was easily obtained, processed, and transported.

After WWII cars used asbestos in break shoes and clutch pads. Asbestos found its way into residential and industrial building materials, water supply, sewage materials, ceiling and floor tiles, and vermiculite garden materials to name a few products.

In the 1970's the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in several products that could release asbestos fibers into the environment during use, following the discoveries of the health dangers of asbestos dust inhalation. Regulations governing the use of asbestos and concern of public opinion since 1970 have created a significant drop in the use of asbestos in the United States.

In 1989 all new uses of asbestos were banned by the Environmental Protection Agency while any old uses before that year were still permitted. The EPA suggested that schools inspect for damaged asbestos and eliminate any exposure or enclose it in protective barriers. Vermiculite, widely used in horticulture, became a concern of the EPA that recommended outdoor use, limiting the amount of dust used, and keeping vermiculite damp.

Asbestos may create serious health hazards such as coughing, lung damage, shortness of breath, and lung cancer. Most people do not become sick in the early stages of development, but usually need continued exposure, often on jobs such as mining, milling, manufacturing asbestos products, and building construction. Firemen, demolition workers, drywall removers, and any other workers in trades that involve destruction of buildings, ships, and automobiles are also exposed to the hazards and risks of asbestos.

Over a period of years continual exposure to asbestos can cause very serious health problems, such as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare type of carcinoma of the membrane that lines numerous cavities of the body, including the lungs, abdomen and heart, and has been associated with exposure to asbestos dust. In mesothelioma, the cells of the mesothelioma metastasize and damage adjacent organs and tissues.

Risk of developing mesothelioma takes a long period of time, often as long as twenty-five or thirty-five years before full blown symptoms appear. Not all workers who have been exposed will develop diseases caused by asbestos, but workers who have been exposed to it may bring fibers on their clothing, hair, shoes, and skin home to their families. To circumvent this risk, most industries require workers to bathe and change their clothing before they leave work.

Many studies have been conducted involving the risks of diseases caused by exposure to asbestos. The results of one such study involving the risks of smoking and exposure to asbestos proved extremely hazardous.


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