What Is Asbestos?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 06, 2022
6 min read

Asbestos is the name for six minerals made of fibers found naturally in the earth. These minerals have been used in construction and manufacturing for many reasons.

For starters, asbestos fibers are flexible and resistant to heat, fire, chemicals, and electricity. That's why they've been used in home and business construction materials, automotive parts, and even textiles.

But the fibers that form asbestos separate easily into tiny pieces when they're handled or damaged. They're too small to see, and they're easy to breathe in. They can build up in your lungs and cause health problems.

For this reason, the U.S. government has banned all new uses of asbestos. But certain uses that were developed before 1989 are still legal. 

You might not notice any symptoms until years after you were exposed to asbestos. In general, it could bring on signs like:

  • Feeling like you can't get enough air
  • Wheezing or hoarseness
  • A lingering cough that gradually gets worse
  • Coughing up blood
  • Pain or tightness in your chest
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling in your neck or face
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Anemia

These can also be symptoms of many other conditions. So get checked by your doctor so they can find out what's going on with you.

If you think you've been exposed to asbestos at some point, talk to your doctor about it, whether you're having symptoms or not.

If you breathe in the fibers over long periods of time, you increase your risk for diseases like lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Smokers are even more affected. That's because cigarette smoke irritates lung passages. This makes it harder for the lungs to remove asbestos fibers.

Mesothelioma. If you've worked with the substance, shared a home with someone who has, or lived close to an asbestos mine, see your doctor if you have trouble breathing or believe it's affected your health.

They can do a chest X-ray or a pulmonary function test to see how much air your lungs can hold. A CT scan or biopsy might help them determine whether you have mesothelioma. That's a type of cancer that affects the lining that covers the lungs, chest or abdomen. An early warning sign is fluid buildup around the lungs. Other symptoms include pain around the rib cage, problems breathing, a cough, pain or lumps in the belly, fatigue, and constipation.

People who have this kind of rare cancer were typically exposed to asbestos at work or lived with someone who was. It can take up to 20 years for symptoms to show up. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

Asbestosis. This is a condition that affects the lungs. It can cause cough, shortness of breath, and even permanent lung damage. Symptoms might also include chest pain, and fingernails and toenails that look oddly wide or round. Like mesothelioma, it doesn't usually occur until years after a person has breathed in asbestos fibers on a regular basis.

There's no way to heal the damage asbestos causes to the small sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. But your doctor will help you manage your symptoms. They may prescribe oxygen to help you breathe. If you have severe symptoms, you may even be placed on a lung transplant list. People with asbestosis are more likely to develop lung cancer.

Most products made in the U.S. today are asbestos-free. And goods that still contain asbestos that could be inhaled must have labels saying so.

But in the past, many types of home-building products and materials had asbestos in them.

These include:

  • Insulation in walls and attics (especially in buildings built between 1930 and 1950)
  • Vinyl floor tiles, the adhesives used to install them, and the backings of vinyl sheet flooring
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Cement sheet, millboard, and paper insulation around furnaces and wood-burning stoves
  • Blankets and asbestos paper tape that protect hot water pipes
  • Material sprayed on walls to soundproof or decorate them
  • Textured paints and patching compounds (which fill holes and cracks) for walls and ceiling joints
  • Insulation for oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets

Other items that may contain asbestos include:

  • Heat-resistant fabrics, packaging materials, gaskets, and coatings
  • Artificial ashes and embers for gas fireplaces
  • Older products like fireproof gloves, stovetop pads, ironing board covers, and certain hairdryers
  • Car brakes, clutches, and transmission parts

Materials with asbestos in them probably won't put your health at risk unless they get damaged or disturbed. If you know something in your home contains asbestos and it's in good condition, just check it now and then for signs or wear or damage, which could release asbestos fibers.

In general, you can't tell if something in your home contains asbestos just by eyeballing it (unless it has a warning label). Leave it alone if you're not sure.

Think about getting your home inspected for asbestos if:

  • You plan to remodel it.
  • It has damaged materials, like crumbling drywall or insulation that's falling apart.

Hire an experienced and accredited asbestos inspector to check your home. They can safely take samples and send them to a qualified lab for testing. If the results show your home has asbestos, they'll tell you what steps you should take next. The EPA recommends against trying to take samples yourself. This could be risky for your health if you do it incorrectly.

An accredited contractor can safely repair or remove asbestos from your home. Don't try to do this yourself. You or your family could end up inhaling fibers that might get released.

After the contractor finishes the work, ask your inspector or an independent air testing contractor to check for asbestos fibers in the air. That can tell you for sure if your home is safe and if the asbestos repair or removal work was a success.

Your state may be able to connect you with accredited professionals near you.

There are several, but only one type only type is still imported, processed, or distributed in the United States. It's called chrysotile (or“white”) asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a ban on it.

It's the most commonly used type of asbestos, making up 90% to 95% of the asbestos used in buildings in the U.S. Manufacturers also use it in a variety of insulation and fireproofing goods.

Other types of asbestos are:

Amosite:This is also called “brown” asbestos, and experts consider it one of the most dangerous types. About 5% of asbestos materials used in U.S. buildings are amosite, which makes it the second most commonly used type after chrysotile.

Actinolite: This was used in things like cement, insulation, paints, sealants, and drywall.

Anthophyllite: This rare form of asbestos wasn't used as often as other types in consumer goods. But you can find it in some cement and insulation materials.

Crocidolite: Also called “blue” asbestos, research suggests it may be tied to more illnesses and deaths than any other type of asbestos. Manufacturers rarely used it because it was less resistant to heat than other types. But it can be found in things like cement, tiles, and insulation.

Tremolite. This type led to many cases of cancer and diseases related to asbestos, and it's not mined anymore. It used to be used in products like paint, sealants, insulation, roofing, and plumbing materials.

Asbestos is so common that everyone has been around it at some point. It's in the air, water, and soil. But when you're exposed at such low levels, it's unlikely to make you sick.

When buildings are demolished and homes are remodeled, asbestos can fill the air. It happens as the materials that contain it are destroyed. Home maintenance and repairs may also release the toxic fibers. You have less to worry about if you're around asbestos products that haven't been damaged in any way.

The U.S. government has controlled the use of asbestos since the 1970s. It's not mined or processed in this country anymore. But it's still used in items like vinyl floor tiles, cement pipes, clothes, and brake pads. The EPA has banned it in paper, flooring felt, fake fireplace embers, and other products.

Unless you work directly with asbestos on a regular basis, your chances of getting related diseases are low.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was destroyed, hundreds of tons of asbestos got into the air. Rescue workers, nearby residents, and those who helped with cleanup efforts may have inhaled it. But the long-term effect of this exposure won't be known for years.