An asbestos primer: What is asbestos?

Many people in North Carolina know in a general way that asbestos causes cancer, but few people know much about the scientific nature of asbestos, or its sources, or its uses. From time to time, this blog will discuss the fundamental scientific, medical and legal issues associated with asbestos.

Asbestos occurs in nature as a mineral composed mostly of silicate, a molecule containing atoms of oxygen and silicon. Naturally-occurring asbestos is generally divided into two kinds: amphibole asbestos and serpentine asbestos. The latter type includes a type of asbestos known as chrysotile. Chrysotile has long, curly fibers that can be easily woven to form a tough, durable fabric that is also heat-resistant. Chrysotile is the kind of asbestos that has been most commonly used in asbestos-containing products such as pipe coverings, brake linings and similar commercial applications.

Amphibole asbestos is composed of long, needle-like fibers that are brittle and not easily fabricated. Consequently, amphibole asbestos has not been employed as widely as chrysotile asbestos by manufacturers of asbestos products.

When an asbestos-containing product is disturbed, such as when pipe insulation or a brake lining is removed, the asbestos fibers are broken into microscopic pieces that become airborne. If a person inhales airborne asbestos fibers, the fibers become lodged in the lungs and parts of the digestive system. Fibers that lodge in the lungs will irritate the lung lining. After many years, this irritation causes the type of lung cancer known as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is usually fatal, with many victims dying within months or one or two years after their initial diagnosis.

People who believe that they have been exposed to airborne asbestos fibers should seek medical assistance. If a positive diagnosis is made, a consultation with an attorney experienced in representing asbestos claims may provide the basis for a claim for damages against the manufacturers of the asbestos or asbestos-containing products.

Source: National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk,” accessed Dec. 2, 2014