What is Asbestos?

Asbestos, which encompasses a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals, has long been praised for its fireproofing and insulating properties. Throughout much of the 20th century, asbestos was used in more than 3,000 construction materials. Many of these products have created hazards for households all around the world as the toxic mineral has been linked to several asbestos-related diseases such as pleural mesothelioma. Exposure to asbestos typically occurs by inhaling airborne asbestos fibers after asbestos-laden materials have been disturbed.

Types of Asbestos

The six different types of asbestos are divided into two distinct groups – serpentine and amphibole.
  • Serpentine – This type of asbestos has curly fibers and a layered structure. The only kind of asbestos in this category is chrysotile (white asbestos). This is now the only kind of asbestos that is still mined on a large scale and it was the kind most often used in buildings in the United States.
  • Amphibole – This kind of asbestos has a long chain-like structure with straight, sharp fibers that are quite easy to inhale. Widely used in a number of products until the late 1970s, there are five types that fall into this category – amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. Crocidolite (blue asbestos) was the second most likely type – behind chrysotile – to be found in buildings.

The Miracle Mineral

The peoples of ancient Greece and Rome were mesmerized by the qualities of asbestos. The Greeks used it readily in wicks to light their temples and it is said that the Roman Emperor Charlemagne threw his woven asbestos tablecloth into the fire to clean it, amazing his guests as it emerged unscathed and sparkling white. It enjoyed all sorts of other uses as well and all marveled at its heat- and fire-resistant properties and its durability.
However, even the ancient civilizations recognized the dangers of dealing with asbestos. Author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder ((23-79 A.D.) told of the pulmonary diseases and early death of the slaves who worked the asbestos mines. Perhaps Pliny’s warnings were heard as, eventually, asbestos use decreased and was rarely used in the coming centuries.

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