Asbestos is a term used to describe a series of minerals distinguished by their long, thin, fibrous crystals. It is a naturally occurring substance usually obtained through mining, although it does lie loose on the ground in certain parts of the world. Asbestos has long been useful for its thermal insulating properties, as well as its resistance to corrosion. However, the fibrous crystals that define it cause terrible damage to the human body over time. These crystals can be very tiny—around a hundredth of the width of a human hair. As such, they are easily suspended in the air when disturbed, and subsequently can be inhaled into the lungs in large quantities. Once inhaled, the lungs have no way to process or remove these crystals and so they cut in and out of the pulmonary tissues with each breath, causing tiny scars that in turn spawn tumors and a more generalized condition called asbestosis.
In parts of the Ancient Mediterranean World, asbestos soil was used as a form of stucco.
The usefulness and corresponding hazards of asbestos have been discovered and rediscovered several times throughout history. This dates back as far as the Ancient Greeks, who noted that slaves involved in the production of asbestos cloth became ill with lung disease. Several historical accounts from Persia to Charlemagne reference a cloth that does not burn, a confluence of physical properties highly indicative of asbestos.
The contemporary history of asbestos is in many ways a precursor of the history of tobacco litigation. Despite the warning of numerous health authorities and agencies, asbestos in the first half of the twentieth century was seen as a space-age wonder mineral and used in any number of applications. As the medical documentation warning of asbestos health hazards became stronger and stronger, the resistance of a number of companies who mined and manufactured asbestos and asbestos products grew correspondingly stiff and corporations began actively hiding the dangers of asbestos from those at risk as well as the general public.
Micronite contained 30% crocilodite, a particularly dangerous form of asbestos. The only way you could make these cigarettes more dangerous was to irradiate them.
In the 1980’s, this resistance finally bore grim fruit, as a number of lawsuits struck home and a large number of companies involved in the manufacture of asbestos were forced to file for bankruptcy. This in turn created a cascade of new legal claims to the point that asbestos litigation is now the largest, most expensive mass tort in US legal history.
In 1986, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), a national management plan to effectively identify and neutralize asbestos-containing material in schools. This original act of regulation was quickly followed up by others, including ASHARA (Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act), NESHAPS (National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants). In addition, OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) maintains standards for worker exposure to asbestos contamination. Many state air quality agencies also enforce laws pertaining to the regulation of breathable asbestos.
Asbestos Man, an ill-fated Marvel Comics super-villain.
Despite all this, it is estimated that over 10,000 people in the United States die each year of asbestos-related causes, and the number of diagnoses is expected to rise over the next decade.
Although production of asbestos products in the United States has been banned or severely limited, many US trading partners still produce construction materials that purposely or inadvertently contain asbestos. Canada, China and Mexico all currently mine and manufacture asbestos and asbestos products. So while US regulation should have prevented the use of asbestos-containing construction materials in most commercial and residential buildings erected after the mid-80’s, the reality is that asbestos can be found in structures built only a few years ago.
Most occupants of buildings containing asbestos materials are in no increased danger as most asbestos is sealed within these materials and is therefore unlikely to float free. The danger comes during demolition or renovation, when construction materials are broken up and crumbled, and large amounts of dust are released into the air. In these cases, asbestos fibers become airborne, and demolition and renovation workers are at risk for exposure and inhalation.