What is asbestos? How is it made and why is it used?

This fall we’re working on a story about open-air demolitions and environmental issues, in collaboration with WBEZ’s Curious City. Let’s start with the basics.

Jeremy Borden
Nov 2, 2017 · 3 min read
Demolition often exposes harmful contaminants in building materials. Photo provided by Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash.

City Bureau’s crack team of yours truly, Tucker Kelly and Manny Ramos have begun to work with WBEZ’s Curious City on a pretty interesting assignment. A McKinley Park listener contacted the show with a question related to demolition and asbestos. There are a lot of thorny issues here, and we’ll be diving into the morass in the coming weeks, looking at building permits and the environment, as new development bulldozes the old in McKinley Park and elsewhere.

I had a simpler question I wanted to start with: What is asbestos and why the heck is it still a problem? I feel like I remember the substance mostly from those old mesothelioma ads in the ’90s that would come on late at night that would incite you to call an 800 number for help or a legal settlement. Truthfully, I don’t know what the stuff is and why, if it’s so bad for you, it’s still around.

In fact, asbestos and other contaminants remain a huge problem — and it’s not as scarce as you might think in 2017.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos comes from certain types of rocks that are mined all around the world, including the western U.S. and North Carolina and South Carolina, according to information provided by the Tennessee state government. (We no longer mine the stuff but we do import it from Brazil and Canada, although it is now only used in very small quantities in certain products, according to the EPA).

Asbestos is extracted from rocks as a fibrous material and it’s basically been around forever — ancient societies have documented using the stuff. Asbestos refers to six unique substances that belong to the serpentine and amphibole mineral families: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite, according to asbestos.com.

Going back to ancient Greek builders, many considered asbestos something of a miracle material. It is light and won’t catch on fire — perfect if that’s the only concern. “Some scholars claim the word asbestos comes from the ancient Greek term, sasbestos, meaning inextinguishable or unquenchable, a characterization of the material’s invincibility from the intense heat of the fire pits used by the Greeks for cooking and warmth,” asbestos.com recounts.

How is it made and why is it used?

The thin, fibrous asbestos material is cheap, durable, light and fire resistant. As a result, it is used in thousands of products, from brake pads to cement to electric insulation. But it really came in vogue in modern times during industrialization — i.e., when we as a society were doing a lot of building and needed cheap products to make it happen, starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Though the first documented death due to asbestos exposure was in 1897, and scientists established the connection between mesothelioma and the substance in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1970s when the U.S. passed laws limiting exposure. The country continued to use asbestos in home construction materials until the 1990s, according to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control. Exposure, scientists say, has resulted in thousands of cases of both lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Our McKinley Park listener is worried about a couple of buildings torn down on his block that likely contained asbestos — all the houses on his block, he says, are from the late 19th century.

As we dive into those concerns — and others about lead contamination — does the City Bureau community have any tips for us? Where are tear-downs that have potentially harmful contaminants happening in Chicago and what’s being done about it?

Comment here or reach out to me at borden.jeremy@gmail.com.

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Jeremy Borden

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Chicago-based writer and journalist in search of the untold story. Tar Heel. Lover of words, jazz, big cities, real people, Chicago sports.

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