Asbestos is a ubiquitous mineral product that has been widely used for more than one hundred years. It has been used in numerous building products, including thermal insulation (pipes, boilers, water tanks), fireproofing, acoustical plasters, and an enormous number of miscellaneous products, including floor tiles, ceiling tiles, textiles such as gloves and blankets, vehicle brake and clutch linings, and various roofing and siding materials. It wide use was due to its superior insulating characteristics, fire resistance, chemical resistance, tensile strength, and abundance.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that asbestos products were installed in millions of buildings in the United States dating to the 1900’s. Many of these materials remain in place and will continue to remain in place for many years to come. As a result of the abundant use of asbestos products, virtually all persons in the industrialized world have been exposed to airborne asbestos and have asbestos fibers in their lungs. Despite this widespread exposure, mesothelioma, a cancer of the pleural cavity that is currently considered specific for asbestos, remains a very rare disease. This strongly suggests that humans tolerate some exposure to asbestos and elevated exposure is required to cause disease.
A study by the National Cancer Institue1 published in 1994 found that 88% of pleural mesothelioma reported in men were associated with a known and recognized occupational asbestos exposure. The occupational activities in which asbestos exposure was considered likely included brake line repair, boiler installation, building demolition, plumbing repair, insulation work, shipbuilding and textile production. The much lower incidence of mesothelioma in women is attributed to the rarity of women in these industries.