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What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used to make a vast array of materials. Asbestos fibers can be separated into thin yet extremely strong and durable threads that are very resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals. For these reasons, asbestos has been widely used for centuries as an ingredient in thousands of products used in dozens of industries, including construction, automotive, and the military.

How Asbestos Has Been Used

Many North American companies have been widely using asbestos since the late 1800s. As industrial production soared during the 19th century, so did the use of asbestos.

Because asbestos was long regarded as a “miracle mineral,” asbestos-containing products were used to insulate many factories, schools, homes, and ships. Asbestos was also used in the manufacturing of some automobile brake and clutch parts, roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, cement, and textiles—the list goes on and on. Asbestos was even used to make artificial snow in Hollywood movies such as The Wizard of Oz.

In the early 1900s, increasing evidence showed that inhaling asbestos fibers caused scarring of the lungs. Still, no precautions were taken in the workplace to protect employees from danger. Things got even worse during World War II, when large numbers of workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos in the massive shipbuilding industry.

Why Asbestos Is Dangerous

When asbestos-containing products are damaged or wear down due to age, tiny fibers can be released into the air. These fibers are easily and unknowingly inhaled into people’s lungs, where they may become trapped. Eventually, the fibers can cause scarring and inflammation that may develop into mesothelioma.

For many years, it was unclear that exposure to asbestos could cause mesothelioma. Perhaps this is because symptoms typically take 20 to 50 years to develop. In the latter part of the 20th century, it became clear that exposure to asbestos could be deadly. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have since classified asbestos as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer).

3 Ways You May Have Been Exposed

Military Asbestos Exposure

In the military

Asbestos-containing products were used in every military branch—especially in the U.S. Navy. Dangerous products could be found throughout naval ships and shipyards as well as in construction materials and protective gear, just to name a few.
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Work Asbestos Exposure

At work

Over the past century, asbestos-containing materials surrounded all kinds of people doing all kinds of work. High-risk occupational fields include shipbuilding, construction, and automobile manufacturing.
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Second Hand Asbestos Exposure

Through secondhand sources

Just as secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer, secondhand asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma. So if your family members or friends were exposed—you may have been too.
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Widespread Asbestos Usage in Major Industries

For decades, a huge number of companies manufactured thousands of asbestos-containing products. Some of the biggest industries were:

Construction and building
Steel mills and foundries
Oil refineries
Plumbing and pipefitting