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Asbestos in the United States: Occurrences, Use and Control
(Released April 2008)

 
  by Andreas Saldivar & Vicki Soto  

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Asbestos has been used for thousands of years, including in items such as lamp wicks and various textiles like cremation cloths, napkins and tablecloths (Ross & Nolan, 2003) (Ells, 1890). There is a story of Charlemagne who would throw his dirtied asbestos tablecloth into the fire to clean it of debris (Ells, 1890). The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History even has a newspaper printed on paper made of chrysotile asbestos.

The first large scale mining and industrial use of asbestos was not until the early 1800s (Virta, 2002). Production generally increased over the next 150 years, peaking with a world production of 4,970,000 metric tons in 1977 (Kelly & Matos, 2005). Products manufactured with some asbestos content included construction materials such as insulation, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, mastics; friction materials such as brakes; and textiles. Faced with the growing evidence of the harmful effects of asbestos on humans, production was decreased. However, world production was still 2,360,000 metric tons in 2004 (Kelly & Matos, 2005).

Domestic asbestos mining occurred in numerous states throughout most of the twentieth century. There are sixty former asbestos mines in the Eastern U.S. alone. (http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2005/1189/). The largest operations were in Arizona, North Carolina, Vermont and California (Virta, 2006).

Picture 2: Vermont Asbestos Group mine site located on Belvidere Mountain, Vermont. U.S. EPA Region 1
mountain stripped clean

The first large scale operation in the U.S. was in Georgia in 1894 (Van Gosen, 2005). Domestic production continued for the next 100 years with the last mine closing in 1993 (Van Gosen, 2005). Domestic production peaked in 1973 at 136,000 metric tons (U.S. Geological Survey, 2005). Available statistics going back to 1910 show that domestic consumption far outpaced domestic production. In the 20th century the U.S. produced 3.3 million metric tons of asbestos but consumed 31 million metric tons. In 1973 when domestic production was at its peak, consumption was 803,000 metric tons. This resulted in the import of 718,000 metric tons. The vast majority, 94 percent, of asbestos imported into U.S. came from Canada, with additional imports from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland (Ross & Nolan, 2003) (Virta, 2006).

Asbestos was used in numerous common building materials, including floor tiles, siding, roofing, ceiling tiles, insulation, fireproofing, gaskets, sealants, and many other products. It was also woven into cloths and used for heat resistant gloves and vibration insulation. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) sample list of products containing asbestos can be viewed at: http://www.epa.gov/Region06/6pd/asbestos/asbmatl.htm.

Picture 3: Label ingredients
closeup of label
Many people think that newly manufactured products sold in the United States do not contain asbestos. This is not true. Asbestos can still be found in common household products and some toys purchased today. A recent study sponsored by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization found numerous products sold today that contain asbestos. Asbestos was found in the fingerprint powder of the CSI Fingerprint Examination Kit. Other products found to contain asbestos were a glazing, a spackle, a roof patching material, and even a variety of duct tape. The roof patching material even listed chrysotile as an ingredient (Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, 2007). The entire report can be viewed at: http://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/eLibrary/
PressReleases/11.28.07.pressrelease.pdf

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