By now, most people have heard of the link between asbestos and lung cancer. At one time, asbestos was commonly used for a variety of purposes in North America (and much of the rest of the world), particularly before its carcinogenic properties were widely known and publicized.

Yet while many uses of the material have since been banned, restricted, or regulated, the legacy of its wide-scale employment and varied uses means that exposure to asbestos fibers remains a common danger for the public at large.

WHAT IS ASBESTOS?

Asbestos is a compound composed of six silicate minerals. These minerals are made up of millions of extremely tiny fibrous crystals, so tiny that the naked eye cannot see individual fibers. The compound is highly resistant to fire, heat, and chemical damage, as well as efficient for sound-proofing, and is in general notably strong. In addition, the mineral can be produced and sold at a fraction of the cost of other materials.

Due to its properties and low cost, asbestos was used widely in consumer products and considered ideal for construction, particularly during and after the industrial boom of World War II. The compound was particularly popular for use for insulation, and as a result it was employed in the production of materials such as concrete and bricks, yet it was also used in items such as vinyl flooring, drywall, and caulk. Even fake snow was made from the mineral, famously appearing in a scene in The Wizard of Oz.

In time, with the increasing popularity of the material, nearly every element of a home could potentially contain the fibers, exponentially increasing rates of asbestos exposure and lung cancer.

DANGER AND DISEASE

Much of the mineral’s popularity in America came to an end in the 1970s when it became increasingly acknowledged that there is a direct link between asbestos and lung cancer and other diseases.

If disturbed, the tiny fibers that make up the material can readily come loose into the air and enter the human body, generally through the respiratory system via inhalation. The invisible fibers then may become lodged in lungs for extended periods of time. Symptoms for asbestos-related illnesses may occur long after exposure, sometimes taking decades to appear.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared that there are no safe levels of exposure to any variety of asbestos fiber. Simply being around material containing the mineral is a health hazard, but those most at risk for asbestos and lung cancer are those who have interacted with the material in any manner that causes it to become airborne, such as individuals renovating older structures. Those who have come in regular contact with workers exposed to asbestos may also be at risk, as the fibers may stick to an individual’s clothing and be inhaled by others.