Asbestos is a mineral known for its flame-retardant and insulation abilities.
Before it was more strictly regulated, asbestos was frequently used in home construction materials and systems.
There are six different types of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite.
All six types of asbestos are potentially hazardous to your health.
The most significant health risks associated with asbestos include mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Asbestos isn’t just a single product. It’s a collection of minerals that includes six different types, used (and eventually restricted) across commercial and residential building materials. Five of the six types belong to the amphibole family, while one—chrysotile—is categorized in the serpentine family. Here’s what you need to know about asbestos, the risks it carries, and what to do about it if you suspect it’s in your home.
The History of Asbestos in the U.S.
Asbestos has been used for U.S. industrial purposes since 1858. Sixty years later, the federal government acknowledged the health risks and high early death rates in people who regularly worked with asbestos. By the 1940s, researchers established a link between asbestos and specific diseases, such as asbestosis and cancer.
Thirty years later, several U.S. agencies began to increase restrictions on asbestos use and exposure. An attempt by the EPA to ban asbestos altogether was overturned by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. As a result, the mineral can still be found in several types of products manufactured today.
However, the EPA proposed a rule in April 2022 which would ban chrysotile asbestos, the only known form of asbestos currently imported into the country.
6 Types of Asbestos
Asbestos isn’t just a single material with a uniform appearance. In fact, six types of asbestos occur naturally and can be found in large-scale deposits around the world; these include chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite.
Each of these six types is categorized in one of two families. Serpentine asbestos contains curly fibers in sheet-like crystal structures. The only kind of asbestos in the serpentine family is chrysotile. By contrast, amphibole asbestos is made up of thin fibers shaped like needles. All of the remaining five types of asbestos belong to the amphibole family.
Chrysotile (White) Asbestos
Chrysotile is the most commonly utilized form of asbestos in the U.S. It accounts for most cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, mainly due to its prevalence of use. Still mined in Canada, Russia, and Italy, chrysotile is currently integrated into products that are densely packed and non-friable (i.e., they can’t be pulverized into powdery textures using hand strength).
Companies use chrysotile to create various home and consumer products, including:
Brake pads, clutches, and disk pads
Amosite (Brown Asbestos)
Considered the second most often used type of asbestos in U.S. industries, amosite is also known as grunerite in its unmined and unprocessed state. Most commonly found in South Africa, amosite poses a higher risk of disease to humans than an equivalent amount of chrysotile. Products that might contain amosite include:
Electrical, plumbing, and thermal insulation
Roofing materials and products
Crocidolite (Blue) Asbestos
Among the five types of asbestos in the amphibole family, crocidolite or blue asbestos is widely considered to be the most dangerous. Its crystal fibers are extremely fine, meaning that it’s far easier for people to breathe them in. Crocidolite was never as common in commercial manufacturing because it’s not as heat resistant as other types. However, it can be found in the following products:
Various kinds of insulation
Ranging in color from yellow to brown, anthophyllite is composed mainly of iron and magnesium. Like crocidolite, anthophyllite asbestos wasn’t extensively used for commercial manufacturing purposes, but it can be found in cement and insulation-related products.
Actinolite is generally dark in color and comprises other minerals, including iron, silicon, calcium, and magnesium. It can be found in older cement, drywall, insulation, paints, and sealants.
Tremolite asbestos comes in a range of colors, from dark green to pale, filmy white. It’s also found predominantly in other minerals, including talc and vermiculite. Tremolite isn’t mined anymore; however, it was previously incorporated into paint, insulation, and some plumbing products.
What Health Risks Does Asbestos Pose?
All six types of asbestos pose a significant risk to the health of human beings. The disease that’s most commonly associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, an aggressive and often terminal type of cancer that affects the tissue lining of most internal organs (known as the mesothelium). Its symptoms include chest or abdominal pain, harsh coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, and unexplained weight loss.
Asbestosis is also caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Over a prolonged period of exposure, these fibers eventually create fibrous tissue scars in the lungs, resulting in shortness of breath, a persistent cough, and chest discomfort or pain. The symptoms may be mild or severe and usually only become noticeable years after the period of exposure. Given current workplace regulations, it’s rare for people to acquire this disease if they’re following workplace safety guidelines.
What to Do If You Suspect Asbestos in Your Home
If you want to determine if your home contains asbestos, the most important thing is not to touch it or attempt to remove it yourself. This is one area of home improvement where a DIY approach poses a real risk of physical danger to the DIYer and anyone in the area. Instead, hire an experienced asbestos abatement company near you and leave this job to the professionals.