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Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral substance. Asbestos is in fact not a single type of mineral — rather, it refers to a group of silicate minerals that share the same fibrous nature. It was common to speak of “white asbestos” (chrysotile) which was commonly used, and the less often used “blue asbestos” (crocidolite) and “brown asbestos” (amosite). Asbestos can be pulled into a fluffy consistency. Asbestos fibers are soft and flexible yet resistant to heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion. Pure asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can also be mixed into cloth, paper, cement, plastic, and other materials to make them stronger. There are two general types of asbestos that are recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
• Serpentine asbestos: Chrysotile
• Amphibole asbestos: Crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, actinolite
Where is asbestos found?
For much of the last century, the words “insulation” and “asbestos” were used almost interchangeably in the US. The first modern asbestos companies were formed in the late 1800s to serve the steam engines and rail industry. Asbestos insulation was available for every wall and pipe, from family homes to power plants.
Asbestos was easy to source from North American mines and cheap, so companies promoted as many uses for it as they could find. Asbestos became an essential component in a new generation of fire-resistant construction materials including cement sheets, roof sealants, and adhesives for floor and ceiling tiles.
With World War II a massive demand for asbestos on U.S. naval ships and military bases developed. After the war, the asbestos industry produced asbestos insulation for homes and appliances as well as many components of automobiles.
The last American asbestos mine was closed in 2002. Consumption of asbestos in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1970’s at more than 800,000 metric tons — though global production of asbestos continues at 2 million tons per year, driven by demand in developing nations where asbestos insulation and cement are still commonly used.
Other consumer products were manufactured with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite or talc, exposing yet more Americans to the toxic mineral. The list of asbestos products goes on, ending only when the dangers of asbestos exposure were finally revealed to the American public in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Currently, it is legal to include asbestos in almost all types of American products as long as the product does not contain more than 1 percent of asbestos.
However, many old buildings and machines in the United States still contain high-percentage asbestos products that were manufactured before modern regulations came into effect. In addition, manufacturers in China and India routinely use asbestos in their factories.
The most common places where asbestos is found in homes are in:
• Vermiculite insulation
• Cement siding boards
• Pipe insulation
• 9-inch square floor tiles
• Textured paint
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