General Information on Asbestos

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name given to a group of six different fibrous minerals (amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite) that occur naturally in the environment. Asbestos minerals have separable fibers that are strong and flexible enough to be spun and woven and are heat resistant. Because of these characteristics, asbestos has been used for a wide range of manufactured goods, mostly in building materials (roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products), friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts), heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, gaskets, and coatings. Some vermiculite or talc products may contain asbestos.

Why is asbestos a health hazard?

Asbestos fibers are so small they cannot be seen. When these tiny fibers are disturbed, they float in the air and can be inhaled. Asbestos has long been recognized as a health threat to humans, because the fibers can be inhaled and are difficult to remove from the lungs. Asbestos can cause health problems when it is breathed into the lungs. Continued exposure increases the amount of fibers that remain in the lungs. Fibers embedded in lung tissue over time may result in lung diseases such as pleural effusions (fluid buildup between the chest wall and the lungs), asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.

How does someone get exposed to asbestos?

We are all exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air we breathe and levels are generally highest in cities and industrial areas. People working in industries that make, use or disturb asbestos or who are involved in asbestos mining may be exposed to high levels of asbestos. Asbestos fibers may be released into the air by the disturbance of asbestos-containing material during product use, demolition work, building or home maintenance, repair, and remodeling. In general, exposure may occur when the asbestos-containing material is disturbed in some way to release particles and fibers into the air.

What about drinking water?

Drinking water may also contain asbestos from natural sources or from asbestos-containing cement pipes. For more information on asbestos in drinking water see The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Basic Information about Asbestos in Drinking Water.

What is asbestos "abatement" or an abatement job?

Abatement means any type of disturbance such as removal, enclosure, encapsulation or repair. Because disturbing asbestos may release fibers into the air, there are regulations for abatement activities and training/certification requirements for those who do it.

What are some occupations that put one at risk of being exposed to asbestos?

  • Auto mechanics
  • Bricklayers
  • Demolition workers
  • Construction workers
  • Drywallers
  • Furnace workers
  • Insulators
  • Iron workers & sheet metal workers
  • Roofers
  • Plumbers
  • Steam fitters
  • Tile setters

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has a comprehensive list of occupations available on their website.

Where can I get more general information on asbestos?

Visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website.