Asbestos comes from a Greek word that means inextinguishable or unquenchable. Six of the earth’s naturally occurring silicate minerals combine to form asbestos. The properties that these six silicate minerals share include their asbestiform shape and their crystals which are long, slender and fibrous. Because of its excellent absorptive quality, good enough tensile strength and good resistance to damages from electrical, heat and chemical assaults, asbestos was a very famous and sought after component of manufacturers and builders alike during the 19th century. These properties are still very much valued by manufacturers of today. As of 2006, Russia has emerged as the biggest producer of asbestos, coming up with 40.2% of the entire output of the world. China came in 2nd with 19.9% of the world’s share, Kazakhstan 3rd with 13.0%, followed by Canada and Brazil with 10.3% and 9.9% respectively of the world’s share. A staggering estimate of about 2.3 million tons of asbestos is being mined in the world as of the present.
Asbestos is composed of six different types of minerals. These minerals are classified under one of two classes, namely chrysotile and amphibole asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos is derived from serpentinite rocks. These are the most commonly used asbestos fibers in the world. These fibers are valued for their curly fibers that allow it to be more flexible than its amphibole counterpart. Chrysotile asbestos is popularly being used for joint compound, as a component of cement for corrugated roof sheets of buildings, as part of pipe linings, as sealants for ropes in boilers, for insulation, and brake linings as well. Due to its flexible nature, it is also commonly spun and woven into fabric. Its myriad of uses however has been severely limited in several countries including the USA and a lot of European nations since the discovery of its potency as a health hazard.
Amphibole asbestos on the other hand has fibers that are straight and needle-like. These are mostly found in the south of Africa. Some of the natural sources of amphibole asbestos can also be found in Australia. Amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite are the five types of asbestos that fall under the amphibole class. These are usually used as a component of ceiling tiles and in the production of insulation boards that are of low density. Amphibole asbestos also serves as an important ingredient in fire retardants in commercially produced thermal insulation products. Examples of these thermal insulation products include gaskets, laggings, limpet sprays and fire-rated doors.
Aside from their differences in fiber configuration, these two classes of asbestos also vary in the degree of potency for a health hazard that they pose. Studies have shown that the amphibole class of asbestos has a higher degree of potential for causing malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease as compared to its chrysotile counterpart. Specifically the amosite and crocidolite variants have been touted as the most hazardous to humans due to their ability to persist for longer periods of time in the lungs. All the types of asbestos have also been found to cause the development of tumors in humans and animals alike. Malignant mesothelioma is the most commonly caused tumor.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is valued for its flexibility and potential for a myriad of uses. However, due to its high degree of potency as a health hazard, its uses have been severely limited. Its use has even been banned entirely in a number of countries.