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Asbestos and Asbestos Health Effects 

What is asbestos?
Asbestos is the name given to a number of naturally occurring fibrous minerals with high tensile strength, the ability to be woven, and resistance to heat and most chemicals. Because of these properties, asbestos fibers have been used in a wide range of manufactured goods, including roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper and cement products, textiles, coatings, and friction products such as automobile clutch, brake and transmission parts. The current regulatory definition of asbestos is the asbestiform varieties of: chrysotile (serpentine); crocidolite (riebeckite); amosite (cummingtonite/grunerite); anthophyllite; tremolite; and actinolite.

What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?
Exposure to airborne asbestos may result in a potential health risk because persons breathing the air may breathe in asbestos fibers. Continued exposure can increase the amount of fibers that remain in the lung. Fibers embedded in lung tissue over time may cause serious lung diseases including: asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma. Smoking increases the risk of developing illness from asbestos exposure.

Three of the major health effects associated with asbestos exposure include:

  • Asbestosis – Asbestosis is a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate lung tissues and cause the tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry, crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis.

  • Lung Cancer – Lung cancer causes the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. People who work in the mining, milling, manufacturing of asbestos, and those who use asbestos and its products are more likely to develop lung cancer than the general population. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are coughing and a change in breathing. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia.

  • Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin lining (membrane) of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart and almost all cases are linked to exposure to asbestos. This disease may not show up until many years after asbestos exposure. This is why great efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.

    Exposure to asbestos increases your risk of developing lung disease. That risk is made worse by smoking. In general, the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the chance of developing harmful health effects. Disease symptoms may take several years to develop following exposure. If you are concerned about possible exposure, consult a physician who specializes in lung diseases (pulmonologist).

    For more information on these and other health effects of asbestos exposure see the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Web site.

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Where can asbestos be found?
Asbestos has been commonly used as an acoustic insulator, thermal insulation, fire proofing and in other building materials. Asbestos fibers are incredibly strong and have properties that make them resistant to heat. Many products are in use today that contain asbestos. In 1989, EPA identified the following asbestos product categories. Many of these materials may still be in use.

asbestos-cement corrugated sheet asbestos-cement flat sheet asbestos-cement pipe
roof coatings flooring felt pipeline wrap
asbestos clothing non-roof coatings vinyl/asbestos floor tile
clutch facings disc brake pads drum brake linings
commercial and industrial asbestos friction products sheet and beater-add gaskets (except specialty industrial) commercial, corrugated, and specialty paper
millboard brake blocks automatic transmission components
rollboard asbestos-cement shingle roofing felt


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Where can I find an accredited lab for asbestos anayltical services?
The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) maintains a listing of accredited asbestos laboratories under the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP). You may call NIST at (301) 975-4016.

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