Photo: Brook Mitchell (Getty)
Asbestos, a fireproof, fibrous mineral, was once in all kinds of products: building insulation and tiles, the linings of anything that could be exposed to heat, and even fake snow used as a Christmas decoration. Too bad it’s a carcinogen.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral, mined from the earth, but its crystals make fine, stringy fibres. You can spin and weave these fibres into cloth, or use them loose like stuffing. In ancient times, a fun party trick was to have tablecloths made of asbestos, and throw them into the fire to clean them.
(The crumbs and stains burn off; the cloth is unharmed.)
When the world was lit and warmed by fire, it seemed like a great material for anything that needs to withstand heat, like the insulation in a stove or building materials in a house.
Asbestos was never banned in the US, but it’s rarely used anymore, thanks to regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and workplace rules from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For example, construction sites can’t have more than a certain amount of asbestos particles in the air, and crews working on asbestos-containing buildings need to follow special safety precautions.
Why is asbestos bad?
The mineral’s tiny fibres can become suspended in dust in the air. When you breathe these in, they can lodge in the lining of your lungs.
The fibres are small and sharp, like needles. Once they get stuck in the lungs, they can migrate to the space in between the lungs and the ribcage. The cells lining this part of the body (the mesothelium) can become scarred and inflamed. Sometimes, cells can become cancerous as a result. This type of cancer is known as mesothelioma, and it’s the cancer most closely associated with asbestos. (Less commonly, asbestos causes other cancers as well.)
Short exposures to asbestos can lead to cancer, as one redditor describes after a 10-hour exposure to asbestos dust, but more commonly the cancer develops in people who worked in construction, shipbuilding, or other asbestos-adjacent trades for decades.
Is it really coming back?
Technically it could. A recent policy change means that the EPA will start considering applications for new asbestos-containing products including building materials. Fast Company reports that the EPA is also no longer required to consider the health or environmental risks of these products making their way into the air, ground, or water. So, yes, new asbestos-containing products could be approved.
But it’s unclear if asbestos has anywhere to make a comeback from. Currently, asbestos is completely banned in Australia, with it being illegal to import, store, supply, sell, install, use or reuse.
So, theoretically it could come back, but there’s no reason to believe that anybody really wants it to. Workers still have to be protected from hazardous exposures, and suing past employers over mesothelioma cases is a major money-maker for lawyers. So the fireproof mineral is probably not going to be in new insulation or roof tiles anytime soon. (Probably.)