A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos has been in use since ancient times. Thought at one point to be a miracle material, its heat-resistant, non-conductive characteristics led to its use in millions of machines and appliances throughout the modern age.
However, studies have shown that in spite of its practical applications, asbestos is also extremely hazardous to living organisms. Part of group of minerals known as silicates, the body is incapable of breaking these substances down. While the body’s defenses can subdue viruses, bacteria, and other organic dust particles, silicates remain in the system, causing irreparable damage.
Unfortunately, the EPA reports one study estimated that asbestos was used in 3,000 different kinds of commercial products, with a variation in the material’s concentration from one to 100 percent. Furthermore, despite its ban for industrial use, asbestos remained legal in the United States for use in everyday chemical products into the 21st century. Long term exposure to the mineral can result in devastating illness such as asbestosis, a severe scarring of the lung tissue, or malignant mesothelioma, a rare and lethal form of cancer. Many of those afflicted with these diseases worked in chemical plants prior to the implement of federal safety regulations.
Since asbestos is resistant to reactive chemicals, chrysotile asbestos was commonly used in laboratories, coating materials, equipment and counter-tops. Even protective clothing may have been coated with asbestos. Even when the public began to learn of the dangers of asbestos, companies often insisted that chrysotile was environmentally safe, calling it the “good asbestos,” despite scientific evidence refuting these claims.
As a result, chrysotile was used into the 1970s, with many patients only now discovering the full effect of the disease. Many chemical plants also used an asbestos solvent that could be sprayed onto pipes, ducts, insulation linings and valves. Afterward, the material was molded into the surfaces and sealed with laminate.
As long as the asbestos remained intact, it posed no health risk to workers. However, as the material ages, the asbestos is more and more likely to crumble, which releases its deadly silicate fibers into the air. This friable form of asbestos can flake off and crumble at the slightest amount of pressure or strain, making chemical plant workers highly susceptible to the mineral. As the symptoms often fail to arise for decades, any individual who has spent time working in a chemical plant should contact their physician for a thorough examination.