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Asbestos is a generic term which is used to describe a group of naturally occurring fibers that are made up of hydrated magnesium silicates. The chemical characteristics and tensile strength of asbestos make it suitable for a wide range of insulating and construction purposes.

Asbestos fibers are broadly classified into two different categories depending on their shape. Serpentine fibers (for instance chrysotile, which is the only major commercial variety) are long, curly strands, while amphibole fibers (for example, amosite, tremolite, crocidolite, and others) are long, straight, rod-like structures. In the United States, Chrysotile accounts for more that 90% of the asbestos used for commercial purposes and is normally considered less toxic in comparison to the amphibole fibers.

Since use of asbestos has been widespread, exposure to the same can occur in several different occupational and non-occupational settings. For instance, exposure to asbestos can occur due to the following reasons:

  • Mining and milling of asbestos fibers
  • Working in industries where asbestos is used (eg, cement, textiles, insulation, friction materials, and shipbuilding)
  • Nonoccupational exposure to asbestos fibers present in the air (eg, continued exposure to work clothing brought home by an asbestos worker, repair, renovation or demolition of buildings that have asbestos, environmental exposure near industrial areas, and natural environmental exposure to geological sources.

Low level exposure to asbestos from industrial emissions or from naturally occurring sources can increase the risk of developing malignant mesothelioma, but not asbestosis.

Occupants of buildings (that are in good repair and undisturbed), in which asbestos was used, do not face any significant health risks.


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