Chemicals & Materials Now!

From basic to specialty, and everything in between

Select category
Search this blog

Familiar Patterns of Man-made Disasters, Part 1 of 4: Asbestos (hardly an old issue!)

Posted on July 17th, 2017 by in Chemical R&D


Yes, hardly old!  Every five minutes someone dies of a disease related to asbestos inhalation!

What is a disaster?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines disaster as “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction. Natural disasters; broadly: a sudden or great misfortune or failure.”  Most people think of the natural variety when they hear the word disaster, for example earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes or typhoons, tornados and forest fires.  People also use the term disaster as a descriptor when something serious or casual goes wrong in their daily lives.  What if you heard hundreds of thousands of people have suffered a slow death by suffocation because of progressively reduced ability to get oxygen by breathing?  Does that fit the definition of disaster?

In this post I apply the term disaster to events, which cause pain, death and material loss on large scale.  We define man-made disasters as global events that are preventable and only occur because they are allowed to.  Here disaster is distinguished from accidents such as refinery explosion and fire no matter how disastrous they might be.  There is even a 2016 book with the title of Disaster Theory, by David Etkin and published by Elsevier.  It discusses disasters from a social and physical science standpoints.  The book is mostly focused on natural disasters.  Even in the case of those disasters the author attributes the reasons vulnerabilities are created to human behavior.

There are avoidable disasters caused by human beings.  Sometimes, they do not exhibit a dramatic spectacular unveiling yet they exact incredible tolls on the society.  This post is the first of four consecutive posts, three of which describe examples of man-made disasters: 1. Asbestos (July 17); 2. Smoking (July 31); and 3. Climate change (August 7).  The fourth post (August 24) discusses the common patterns of those three disasters and proposes root causes for all of them.  Taking preventive measures is straightforward when root causes of any event are known.

What is asbestos?

“Asbestos is a generic term referring to six types of naturally occurring mineral fibers that are or have been commercially exploited. These fibers belong to two mineral groups: serpentines and amphiboles. The serpentine group contains a single asbestiform variety: chrysotile. There are five asbestiform varieties of amphiboles: anthophyllite asbestos, grunerite asbestos (amosite), riebeckite asbestos (crocidolite), tremolite asbestos, and actinolite asbestos.

The asbestos varieties share several properties: (1) they occur as bundles of fibers that can be easily separated from the host matrix or cleaved into thinner fibers; (2) the fibers exhibit high tensile strengths (1); (3) they show high length to diameter (aspect) ratios, with a minimum of 20 and up to 1000; (4) they are sufficiently flexible to be spun; and (5) macroscopically, they resemble organic fibers such as cellulose. Since asbestos fibers are all silicates, they exhibit several other common properties, such as incombustibility, thermal stability, resistance to biodegradation, chemical inertia toward most chemicals, and low electrical conductivity.” 1

Asbestos Diseases

Generally, being around asbestos-made products is not a danger as long as the asbestos is enclosed (or entrapped) in another medium.  Asbestos is made up of tiny fibers (friable) that can escape into the air when it is not enclosed.  Enclosure by liquids and polymers prevents the fibers from becoming airborne. Removing asbestos products like insulation during building renovations can release asbestos fibers into the air, if precautions are not taken.  When breathed in, the fibers can enter the lungs and remain there for a long time (decades).

Exposure to asbestos fibers could occur during various phases of manufacturing, use and removal of friable (airborne) asbestos.  It is important to realize only some of the asbestos can become friable unless asbestos has been compounded in or impregnated with other materials such as liquids, pastes or polymers.  Non-friable asbestos is considered quite safe.

Several diseases strike most people who have been exposed to asbestos and inhaled friable fibers.  If the fibers build up in the lungs, they can lead to: 1. Mesothelioma; 2. Lung Cancer; and 3. Asbestosis.  There are half dozen other deadly illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos.  No treatments can reverse the effects of asbestos on the lungs and prevent death from cancer and mesothelioma.  However, treatments may help relieve symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and prevent complications.2

Definition of Asbestos Forms

The Legal Definition of friable asbestos is provided by 15 U.S. Code Chapter 53 – Toxic Substances Control, Subchapter II – Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response- §§ 2642, as seen below3:

‘(4) Asbestos-containing material

The term “asbestos-containing material” (ACM) means any material which contains more than 1 percent asbestos by weight.

(6) Friable asbestos-containing material

The term “friable asbestos-containing material” means any asbestos-containing material applied on ceilings, walls, structural members, piping, duct work, or any other part of a building which when dry may be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure. The term includes non-friable asbestos-containing material after such previously non-friable material becomes damaged to the extent that when dry it may be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure.

The legal definitions of “friable” and “non friable” asbestos clearly depicts the differences between dangerous and safe asbestos containing materials.

  • Friable ACM is any material that contains more than one percent asbestos by weight or area, depending on whether it is a bulk or sheet material and can be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by the pressure of an ordinary human hand.
  • Non-friable ACM is any material that contains more than one percent asbestos, but cannot be pulverized under hand pressure. Materials are slightly more confusing within the classification of non-friable ACM:
  • Category I non-friable includes asbestos packings, gaskets, resilient floor covering, and asphalt roofing products.
  • Category II is any non-friable ACM not included in Category I.4

History of Asbestos and its Use

Humans have used Asbestos as far back as 4,500 years.  Modern day debut of Asbestos occurred when The Johns Company began mining fibrous anthophyllite in 1858 for use as asbestos insulation at the Ward’s Hill quarry in Staten Island, New York.  The Industrial Revolution saw a marked increase in asbestos production and use in North America, with the first commercial asbestos mine opening in 1874 in Quebec. Applications of asbestos grew significantly over the next hundred years.  Beneficial properties of asbestos include incombustibility, thermal stability, resistance to biodegradation, chemical inertia toward most chemicals, and low electrical conductivity.5 These properties spurred application of asbestos in a large number of products, such as building insulation, pipe insulation, roofing and flooring compounds, automotive and aerospace parts, cement and gaskets and packings.

In the British Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops of 1899 there is, for example, mention of the ‘damaging effects of the fibers’. Physicians found patients did not respond to treatment when were treated for tuberculosis and kept on dying relatively quickly.  A London physician named H. Montague Murray made the first proven pathological finding of asbestosis in 1900.  Other corroborating evidence were presented continuously throughout the 20th Century (Table 1).6

Table 1 Chronological table for asbestosis recognized as occupational disease6

Asbestos table 1

In 1965 the American asbestos researcher, Irving J. Selikoff, presented his results of years of asbestos research to an influential congress in New York.6,7  He presented an epidemiological study of 1,522 men who had worked with asbestos insulation. Among those exposed to asbestos the longest, having worked with it for over twenty years, it was found that lung cancer occurred seven times more frequently than in a control group from the general population; other types of cancers also occurred at higher rates.8 Selikoff’s conclusion was: ‘Heavy contact with asbestos during a single month in one’s life can cause mesothelioma cancer decades later, and the risk of lung cancer doubles. This was not a hypothesis, but certain knowledge.’

There have been hundreds if not thousands of studies in the last 50+ years since Selikoff’s remarkable research results in 1965. Each study has added evidence to the previous findings that exposure to friable asbestos is dangerous and deadly.  Even a topical mention of those studies will require far more space than allowed by this post.  Handling non-friable asbestos has been found to be safe.9  Majority of countries have reduced asbestos use and a few have placed wholesale national bans on asbestos use (Table 2).  Large countries like China, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa and Iran continue to use asbestos often without proper care to prevent exposure to friable fibers.

Table 2 Historical Trend in Asbestos use per capita (kg per capita/yr) and Status of National Ban10

Asbestos table 2

Asbestos table 2 of 2

Death and Exposure Statistics

The World Health Organization estimated about 125 million people in the world have been exposed to asbestos at the workplace.11  “The statistics in an experts’ report for the European Union (EU) reflect the frightening extent of the asbestos problem: 500,000 people will die of asbestos-related cancer in Europe alone by the year 2030.”12 A similar estimate by RAND Corp projected 432,465 asbestos-related cancer deaths in the US from 1965 through 2029.

I will discuss some of the reasons behind the continued use of friable asbestos, for over a century after it was found to be deadly, in Part 4, scheduled for August 21, 2017.  Let’s suffice to say friable asbestos has remained part of the stream of commerce because of profiteering and greed.  Powerful individuals and organizations have influenced governments and other agencies around the world to prevent curtailment of the use and promulgation of laws to regulate friable asbestos exposure and consumption.  Immense profits have been made at the expense of suffering and death of workers and others who inhaled friable asbestos fibers.  This story seems to fit the definition of a disaster, of a continuing variety.


1 R. Virta, Asbestos: Geology, Mineralogy, Mining, and Uses, U.S. Geological Survey, Open-File Report 02-149, 2002.

2 What Are Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases?, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute,, July 2017.

3 15 U.S. Code Chapter 53 – Toxic Substances Control, Subchapter II – Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response- §§ 2642.

4 Humboldt Waste Management Authority, County of Humboldt, California,, July 2017.

5 R. Virta, Asbestos, Kirk Othmer Ency of Chem Tech, Wiley-on-line, John Wiley & Sons, New York 2011.

6 L. Vogel, B. Castleman, L. Kazan-Allen and K. Ruff, The asbestos lie: The past and present of an industrial catastrophe, ISBN: 978-2-87452-313-7, pub by ETUI, Brussels, 2014.

7 Reference 30 in Vogel et al, reference 6 above.

8 Reference 29 in Vogel et al, reference 6 above.

9 A. K. Madl , K. Clark and D. J. Paustenbach, Exposure to Airborne Asbestos During Removal and Installation of Gaskets and Packings, J. of Toxic and Enviro Health, Part B, 10:259–286, 2007.

10 Asbestos, No. 100, IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Human International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of WHO), 2012.

11 World Health Organization,, Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases June 2016.

12 Gue, NGL, Vereinte Europäische Linke, Nordische Grüne, and Parlamentsfraktion – Europäisches Parlament (2005) Asbest: wie die Profitgier der Konzerne Menschenleben fordert, and BAFU (2005) Heimtückische Asbest,].

 Elsevier Recommends:

Access the complimentary white paper ‘Making It Work: Ideas for Improving EHS Risk Mitigation in R&D Amidst Increasing Regulation’

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

R&D Solutions for Chemicals & Materials

We're happy to discuss your needs and show you how Elsevier's Solution can help.

Contact Sales