The name "asbestos" used to mean a wonder-material, an insulator without equal and a strengthening fiber so cheap and strong it was used in building materials worldwide. Today the name means nothing but death and ruin.
Asbestos had been used so widely and for so long that it must have seemed beyond credibility when evidence first started appearing that it might be harmful. It is, after all, just a natural mineral, a rock dug from the ground. It contains no toxic elements or compounds. As a silicate mineral, asbestos is a member the group of minerals that make up as much as 90% of the earth's crust. How could such a common rock possibly be dangerous?
The answer lies in its shape. As you can see from this and the other asbestos samples below, the difference between asbestos and other silicate minerals is that asbestos appears in the form of very fine hair-like fibers. This fibrous nature is what makes it so useful as an insulator and building material: It can be woven, braided, pressed into mats, or mixed with plaster or concrete to make a strong, fiber-reinforced material. (It's also fireproof and impervious to most chemicals: What more could you ask for? To this day there are no really satisfactory substitutes for some applications from which asbestos has been banned.)
The fibers are not just fine, they are ultra-fine: The ends of the natural fibers taper down to molecular sharpness, with a tip that is literally no more than a few atoms across. Lodged in the body, most commonly in the lungs when stray fibers are inhaled, these tips can worm their way into individual living cells and tickle the DNA in a way that no blunt artificial fibers can.
The ability to touch, and damage, DNA makes asbestos fibers potent carcinogens: Remarkably, unlike virtually all other carcinogens, they cause cancer purely mechanically, not chemically or by radiation. They literally poke the strands of DNA in a living cell without killing the cell. Topping off their deadly potential, asbestos fibers, unlike for example modern fiberglass fibers, last pretty much forever in the environment of the lungs. Fiberglass is said to dissolve after a few months in the lungs, and in any case isn't sharp enough to cause molecular-level damage (at least, that's what people think now, we'll see how the evidence stacks up in another 50 years). But asbestos fibers will sit there for decades on end, firmly lodged in the deepest recesses of the lungs, just waiting for some unlucky DNA to happen by.
In principle asbestos could cause cancer anywhere in the body, but it's the lungs that are most vulnerable. As with many hazards, its layer of dead cells protects the skin from asbestos, as does the lining of the gut. But in the lungs the living cells are right on the surface, vulnerable to anything that finds its way past the nose and sinuses.
The most serious disease caused by asbestos is mesothelioma, a form of cancer. If you look up mesothelioma in google, you will find lawyers, lawyers, and more lawyers. Everywhere you look, it's lawyers as far as the eye can see. Even websites that seem to be purely informational or medical in nature will, on closer examination, turn out to be sponsored by a law firm. The reason of course is that there is big money in mesothelioma, specifically in suing any and every company that ever had its doorstep darkened by a product containing asbestos in any form.
There is probably some guilt in the asbestos industry. The real truth will most likely never be known, since to admit it would mean instant financial ruin for anyone who spoke, but my guess is that some people, including some senior people at large companies, knew pretty well that asbestos was harmful, and instead of immediately shutting their companies down and putting hundreds of people out of work, they tried to hide the evidence and thus condemned more workers and customers to death. (Business is complicated, much like life.)
But the current orgy of asbestos litigation is clearly targeting people far from any reasonable definition of guilt. Lawyer's websites list literally hundreds of companies and job sites, including small plumbing distributors, hospitals, schools, and even court houses. All places where asbestos was manufactured, sold, handled, or used. All places liable to being sued for millions of dollars by someone who wishes to hold them accountable for the disease that is slowly but surely killing them.
Saying that a small plumbing company that sold or installed asbestos insulation is liable for the illness of its workers or customers throws common notions of liability on their head. These small business people had no more reason to believe asbestos was dangerous than did their employees and customers: No one imagined it. No one considered it. No one would have believed it. And if some large companies had internal documents suggesting there was cause for concern, they certainly didn't share those with the local plumbing contractor!
A lot of good people have been ruined by asbestos litigation. But a lot of people have died because of asbestos, and juries tend to want to find a way to help sick people, even if it means extracting money from someone who did nothing wrong, someone whose only guilt is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is to say, being the owner of a business that sold a legal product that they and everyone they knew thought was safe.
What would be a fair solution? Society benefitted from asbestos, society (which is to say the government) should pay to take care of those harmed by it. In most countries, that's just what happens (and not just for asbestos-related disease). But in America, we instead have a system in which we pick random companies and extort them for sometimes more money than they have, to enrich a few sick people beyond any reasonable need, while diverting a large percentage of the money to lawyers who, much as some people might wish it, don't even have mesothelioma. Those not lucky enough to find a target with deep pockets, or too honest to blame a blameless party for their misfortune, languish in poverty and pain until death takes them.
It makes about as much sense as throwing darts at a board to decide who pays for which disease: OK, Amtrack, you pay for lupus, General Motors gets colon cancer, Microsoft can take gastroenteritis, Chiquita gets mesothelioma, and for hives we will pick, oh, say, McDonald's. (Yes, Chiquita Bananas is on the list of companies targeted for asbestos litigation. The other company-disease associations I made up and have no basis in fact. So far as I know.)
One thing that is often missed in discussion of asbestos is that the minerals it comes from are beautiful! I bought a set of six absolutely stunning mineral samples representing the range of natural sources for this amazing product.
The photo associated with this text is of Actinolite, one of the most potently carcinogenic forms of asbestos. Its sharp, needle-like fibers make it especially dangerous. The samples below represent all the major natural sources of asbestos fibers.
Mineral details: Actinolite (variety "Byssolite"), amphibole group, double-chain silicate. From the Greek aktinos ("ray"). French Creek, Chester County, Pennsylvania, USA.
Source: eBay seller star-stuff
Contributor: Theodore Gray
Acquired: 10 April, 2006
Text Updated: 1 June, 2006