Asbestos - The wondrous mineral turned health hazard


Article by: Kanawas Sriprab (Khun), on 18 July 2023 at 01:42 am PDT

Roof tiles, floor tiles, heat-resistant fabrics and many more, are examples of everyday products containing Asbestos. Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous, silicate minerals. Useful due to their tensile strength, insulation and resistance to chemical ware, asbestos was deemed by many "The World's Most Wonderful Material". Today, however, the outlook is much different, and Asbestos is considered a health hazard. How did this occur?

What is Asbestos?

To understand the effects of Asbestos, we must first understand what it is. Asbestos is, as mentioned prior, a fibrous, silicate mineral (to put it simply, a material containing fibres made out of rock-forming minerals called silicates). Asbestos is composed mainly of magnesium, iron, calcium, aluminium and sodium bonded with silicates to form long, thin fibres, with their length much greater than their width.

Why is Asbestos used?

Asbestos' chemical properties allow it to be an insulator, have great tensile strength, and resistance to chemical attacks; this made it popular in the late 1900s for use in industry, water supply lines, brake linings and many more. Asbestos is stable to 550 degrees Celsius, and resisted strong bases as well, which encouraged its mining at industrial levels around the world, generating great wealth to countries wealthy with it, such as Canada and Russia.

The image above an electron micrograph of chrysotile fibers, a form of asbestos. Notice its structure as a bundle of fibers with a tiny width a miniscule fraction of its height, much like an extreme version of human hair. 

So what is the danger of Asbestos?

Asbestos' position as the world's undisputed mineral would not last long, however, due to the dangers it posed. Researchers discovered that inhalation of asbestos, or any other means of it entering the human body, were causes of lung, ovary and larynx or gastrointestinal cancer, along with asbestosis (lung scarring due to sharp asbestos fibers getting stuck in lung tissue), mesothelioma and other diseases.

In fact, the WHO estimates that 125,000,000 individuals are exposed to asbestos globally, and 107,000, unfortunately, die from this exposure. ½ of all deaths related to job-related cancer are from asbestos.

What's happening today?

As a result of its clear dangers, asbestos is banned in 55 countries around the world, including the entire EU, though today it continues to be used in several major countries, such as the People's Republic of China, Russia, and in little amounts, the United States of America. 5 of 6 asbestos forms have been listed as a hazardous substance by the Rotterdam Convention (Convention on Chemical Safety and Hazardous Chemicals), with only chrysotile still in major use. The convention's Chemical Review Committee recommended it be listed as a hazardous one in 2006, though setbacks due to objections of producer countries, along with insistence by the asbestos industry that it is safe, have hindered the process.

What should I do?

So what should you do if you find asbestos in your home, or have been exposed to it? The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that you LEAVE IT ALONE; if you find asbestos in your home, ignoring it, then contacting professionals is the best way to proceed. Endangering yourself by disturbing the sample you found may cause more harm than good, or create more danger than what would have been if it had not been interfered with. If you feel that you have been exposed, wash yourself and your clothes, then speak with a medical professional immediately.

Asbestos is truly an interesting chemical, to say the least. While its use and advantage are plentiful, the proven dangers and hazards of asbestos are also difficult to ignore. The status of this mineral around the world is controversial to this day.

More about Asbestos: Royal Society of Chemistry - Chemistry World - Asbestos

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