Asbestos: Then and Today

Danger Asbestos yellow warning tape close up

Asbestos is a quiet killer.

For many people, it takes several decades for a case to be linked to the fibrous minerals. According to the EPA, there is no amount of exposure—regardless of how short—that is safe. 

Yet asbestos is used today, even in the US. 

Are you interested in learning more about this deadly material? Read on to answer your many questions, including what was asbestos used for, what is it and why is it unsafe? 

What Is Asbestos? 

In nature, minerals exist that are bundles of fibers. Six of these types of minerals bundle in a way that’s easily separated, making it ideal for corporate use. 

Even more desirable, these bundles are resistant to fire, heat, and chemicals. They are also unable to conduct electricity. 

This is asbestos. 

Asbestos is divided into two major categories: 

  1. Serpentine asbestos
  2. Amphibole asbestos

Serpentine asbestos contains chrysotile, a mineral that we easily manipulate. It is this group that most people associate with asbestos. 

Amphibole asbestos is brittle, making it difficult to fabricate. It contains several minerals, including tremolite and amosite. 

What Was Asbestos Used For? 

Asbestos was used as far back as 2500 BCE, when Ancient Egyptian civilizations used it to embalm pharaohs and in pottery.

However, asbestos’ use came to its height in most major nations in the 1800s. By 1880, mines were open in America, Canada, Russia, Africa, and other nations. 

During this time, it found its way into numerous areas of public life. So what was asbestos used for? 

Pretty much everything:  

  • Insulation
  • Hairdryers
  • Brake shoes
  • Clutch pads
  • Paints
  • Plastics

When World War II began, use soared as companies and military branches discovered its desirable characteristics. Almost every citizen came in contact with asbestos at some point in their lives because of its widespread use. 

In particular, the material was useful in construction and manufacturing. The fireproof qualities made it safe and the malleable material was easy to install. 

Health Concerns

By the early 1900s, researchers found a link between asbestos and premature mortality. However, the rest of the world had yet to accept the connections. It wasn’t until the 1970s when officials publicly denounced asbestos and considered it unsafe. 

By this time, research indicated asbestos caused severe lung issues and cancer

When individuals disturb the material, small particles enter the lungs and embed themselves there. Over time, this leads to inflammation, scarring, and several cancers. 

Potential health effects include: 

  • Mesothelioma
  • Lung cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Ovarian cancer 
  • Pleural disease

In addition to regular exposure, secondhand exposure also exists. Remnants on clothing from work, for instance, may be inhaled by family members or friends.  

Even minimal exposure can have dire consequences, and diagnoses that point to the culprit are usually not made until decades after contact. 


Sadly, the symptoms associated with exposure to asbestos may occur years after initial contact. It is for this reason diagnoses take so long to confirm. 

Symptoms include: 

  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness 

Because of the extended period in which no symptoms occur, if you suspect you’ve come into contact with asbestos, contact a doctor. 

Lung biopsies and bronchoscopies are the best asbestos testing methods to detect fibers in the lungs. At advanced stages, physicians use x-rays to check for asbestos-caused illnesses. 

Unfortunately, asbestos-related diseases are progressive. Doctors treat the illnesses, but physicians can’t fully cure the diseases. 

Is It Still Used Today? 

Shockingly, the US still uses asbestos today. 

Although the number of deaths has dwindled and US production has dropped from 803,000 metric tons to 360 metric tons since the 1970s, thousands of individuals die from asbestos-related conditions each year. 

Today, the government has restrictions for using asbestos in products. It can only make up less than one percent of a product.

The government permits uses for asbestos put into place before 1989. Current bans affect minimal types of items, including felt and papers. 

Some household items that may have asbestos in tow include: 

  • Potting soil
  • Roofing material
  • Brake bads
  • Tiles
  • Insulation
  • Fireproof clothing
  • Paints

As you can see, companies still use the material widely. 

Luckily, businesses offer many products without asbestos, and advances in technology decrease reliance.

Consumers can find an assortment of paints and sprays, for instance, if they shop here.

What Happened to the Unsafe Items? 

The government and EPA did ban numerous items, and old products containing large amounts of asbestos were (and are) carefully disposed of. 

In addition, several agencies oversee the safety and regulation of employers using asbestos. For this reason, employees may wear respirators, protective clothing and more to avoid exposure. 

Individuals discarding asbestos-related items must submit them to an approved facility. Some cities and states require permits to remove asbestos.  

How Can I Protect Myself? 

The EPA recommends hiring professionals if you find asbestos in your house. Even the smallest disturbance releases microparticles that find their way into your lungs. Therefore, it’s best to avoid asbestos.

If you happen across it, hire someone to remove it or leave it alone. Consider annual inspections of your home to have experts handle insulation and other material.

Unfortunately, some sectors require employees to handle asbestos daily. Those in construction, firefighting, manufacturing, service sectors and more come into contact with the material. 

Companies should have training and proper safety equipment in place for employees in these circumstances. Familiarize yourself with OSHA’s regulations and required safety equipment to reduce the risk of exposure. 

If you suspect your company isn’t adhering to regulations, contact the EPA or OSHA. 

What Should I Do If I’ve Been Exposed? 

Most of the time, short-term exposures are not harmful. It takes years of continued exposure to build up enough microfibers within the lungs and cause damage.

The type of material, the duration of exposure and the number of fibers inhaled all impact if individuals experience negative health repercussions. 

However, even if you suspect you’ve come into contact with disturbed asbestos for the first time, it’s best to see a doctor. 

It’s a Big, Big World

The world is a place of wonders, but not all of its surprises are good ones. Answering the question “What was asbestos used for” only leads to a shocking counter-question: “What is asbestos used for?”

While the US has made drastic strides in decreasing exposure risks, there is still more to be done. 

But asbestos isn’t the only nasty surprise out there. Read all about a different and growing type of horror in our article, and steer clear of that insulation. 

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