asbestos, common name for any of a variety of silicate minerals within the amphibole and serpentine groups that are fibrous in structure and more or less resistant to acid and fire. Chrysotile asbestos, a form of serpentine, is the chief commercial asbestos. Varieties of amphibole asbestos are amosite, used in insulating materials; crocidolite, or blue asbestos, used for making asbestos-cement products; and tremolite, used in laboratories for filtering chemicals. Asbestos is usually found comprising veins in other rock; in most cases it appears to be the product of metamorphism. The asbestos-producing nations are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Canada. Asbestos is mined both in open quarries and underground.
Since the 1960s, asbestos has been recognized as a potent carcinogen and serious health hazard. Inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers has been established as the cause of asbestosis (thickening and scarring of lung tissue) and as a cause of mesothelioma (a highly lethal tumor of the pleura) as well as of cancers of the lung, intestines, and liver. In 1972, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began regulating asbestos and strengthening work safety standards. Large class action lawsuits were filed and won against asbestos companies, which had probable prior knowledge of the dangers involved. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency imposed a ban on 94% of U.S. asbestos production and imports, to be phased in over a seven year period. Most current asbestos exposure comes from asbestos in older buildings and products such as automobile brakes.
See P. H. Riordon and V. F. Hollister, Geology of Asbestos Deposits (1981); S. S. Chissick and R. Derricott, Asbestos: Properties, Applications and Hazards (1983).