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Asbestos Exposure: The Brief History You Probably Didn't Know

By WebMD Connect to Care Staff
Asbestos was once widely used in manufacturing. Today, it has rightfully earned a reputation for getting people sick.

You’ve probably heard of asbestos, the heat-resistant mineral that was widely used in manufacturing until relatively recently. While we’re all a little exposed to asbestos, long-term and persistent exposure can be toxic.

Here’s some background on asbestos, its toxic properties, and what is being done to protect you today.

What are some asbestos-related illnesses?

Asbestos is most widely known to harm the lungs and cause mesothelioma, a fatal cancer.

“People are familiar with how asbestos can harden the lungs leading to disease; however what is particularly important is that this can ultimately lead to mesothelioma,” Dilraj Kalsi, a London-based physician, says. “Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lungs and most patients only survive up to a year.”

It can take up to 40 years for mesothelioma symptoms to appear, so it’s best to get checked even if you were exposed to asbestos long ago.

Asbestos can also cause asbestosis, or scarring of the lungs, and pleural disease, a condition that affects lung function. It has also been linked to cancers of the ovary, pharynx, and stomach.

When did asbestos become toxic?

The first cases of asbestos-related illnesses were recorded in 1924 in the British Medical Journal. As a result, the British government enacted regulations on dust to protect factory workers. However, in the United States, use of the fiber peaked in popularity after World War II, when it was widely used in manufacturing because of its flame resistant properties. Asbestos has been used in building insulation, brake shoes for cars, adhesives, garden supplies, and even crayons.

Knowledge about asbestosis and lung cancer began spreading by the 1940s, and by the mid-1950s, scientist determined that there was likely a strong link between asbestos and lung cancer. Mesothelioma, the most commonly known asbestos-related cancer, was discovered was discovered in the 1960s.

The 1970s brought widespread knowledge about the dangers of asbestos exposure.

In the 1970s the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned asbestos in some home building materials, such as materials used for wallboard and fireplaces. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also implemented regulations on asbestos use and exposure.

By 1989, the EPA largely banned asbestos.

In 1989 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of asbestos in new materials and called for all school buildings to be inspected and repaired if necessary.

The EPA’s sweeping action does not mean all use of asbestos immediately stopped. In fact, asbestos-related concerns still emerge today.

Insulation and crayons were recent causes of asbestos exposure.

In August 2000, the EPA tested the effects of exposure to vermiculite, a mineral found in housing insulation, since vermiculite sold until the 1990s comes from asbestos-contaminated mines in Libby, Montana. While the EPA concluded that vermiculite doesn’t pose a large risk, the agency has warned consumers to take action if they believe their homes’ insulation contains the mineral.

As for crayons, in 2000, U.S. manufacturers of crayons stopped using talc, the source of asbestos in their products, however, asbestos was found in Playskool crayons just recently in 2018. Most crayon brands, however, do not contain asbestos, according to research from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund.

Asbestos use has largely dropped, but exposure can linger.

By 2015, U.S. manufacturing companies largely stopped using asbestos. However, most people have been exposed to asbestos or are being exposed at low and most likely non-toxic levels. But those who work in manufacturing or those who have been exposed to the materials of older buildings, such as 9/11 first responders, should take extra precaution.

If you believe you’ve had excessive exposure to asbestos, be sure to speak to a doctor and contact your state asbestos specialist.