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
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.
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.
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.
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
Common Locations for Secondhand Exposure
From brake pads to insulation to protective gear such as gloves, for many workers, asbestos-containing products could show up almost anywhere. Working with or around these products was often dirty, dusty work. Unfortunately that dust, and the danger it posed, didn’t always stay at the job site. Here are some locations where family members and friends could have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos:
- In the Laundry Room —Anyone washing clothes that were covered in asbestos dust could have inhaled that dust. Just imagine the possible extent of that exposure caused by doing only a load or 2 of laundry every week.
- In the Kids’ Bedrooms —Tucking in the children for the night before removing asbestos-contaminated clothing and showering could have easily exposed those kids to asbestos fibers.
- In the Front Hallway —Asbestos fibers may have also stuck in a worker’s hair, on skin, or on his or her clothing. So it’s not hard to imagine how secondhand exposure could have taken place just by hugging your dad, mom, or husband when he or she returned home after a long day at work.
- In the Living Room —Do you always remember to take off your work clothes before sitting down to watch a little TV or to read the paper? For folks who worked in many industries, work clothes could have released dust that contained asbestos fibers onto living room furniture and carpeting—potentially exposing anyone who entered the living room to asbestos.