Asbestos is a mineral that is crushed and milled into a fine particulate, and shipped to corporations for building and insulation materials. Asbestos mines around the world, many in Canada, produced over 250 million tons of asbestos for use in the United States between 1890 and 1970. Asbestos was added to a variety of products including insulation, automotive brakes, fireproofing, pipe covering, cements, refractory materials, gaskets, floor tiles and joint compounds.
The dangers of asbestos were known to the companies that made these products as early as the 1920s. However, asbestos was sold and used widely without warnings up until the 1980s. Asbestos products are still not banned in the United States and other countries but are no longer used as widely. Alternative materials were available that could have been used in place of asbestos.
During the installation, repair, maintenance, renovation and removal of asbestos materials, the products were cut, scraped, sanded and otherwise altered. Some materials, such as cements, were mixed at job sites using raw asbestos fibers. These processes created dust, which was breathed in by the laborers working with and around these materials. Dust from these products also traveled throughout buildings and factories and ships, and remained airborne for weeks. When swept, these materials were re-suspended in the air — where they were breathed in again by workers in the vicinity.
A wide array of workers were exposed to asbestos including shipyard workers, factory workers, pipefitters, sheet metal workers, plumbers, laborers, machinists, mechanics, powerhouse workers, and electricians. One cloud of dust from asbestos products can contain millions or billions of fibers, and even a small amount of asbestos can cause lung damage. Injuries also occur to people who washed their family member’s clothing after they returned home from work and to individuals who used asbestos products, such as floor tiles, in their homes.
Often, individuals won’t immediately recall how they were exposed to asbestos, and may believe that they were not exposed to asbestos at all. A careful examination and review of a person’s work and life history often reveals exposures to asbestos products that may not be readily apparent.