The name asbestos is given to a group of naturally occurring minerals that can be separated into thin fibers. The mineral was a popular building material in a number of different industries because the fibers are resistant to heat, fire and chemicals and do not conduct electricity, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Originally, the ancient Greeks and Romans referred to asbestos as the "miracle mineral" due to its resistance to fire. In North America, asbestos has been mined and used since the late 1800s, with its use increasing greatly during the Industrial Revolution, according to Stanford University's Department of Environmental Health and Safety. Some of the major industries that typically used asbestos included construction, roofing, shipbuilding and the automotive industry.
By the 1960s, however, it was widely known that asbestos exposure can cause a range of serious illnesses. Some of these illnesses include malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
During the late 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of the mineral in gas fireplaces and wall-patching compounds because the dangerous fibers could be released into the environment, potentially posing a health risk. As a result of other legislation stemming from asbestos exposure health risks, the domestic consumption of the material dropped from 803,000 metric tons in 1973 to just 2,400 metric tons in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
For the most part, people are subject to asbestos exposure by inhaling the dangerous fibers when they breathe, according to the American Cancer Society. Typically, this inhalation can occur during building demolitions, asbestos mining or renovation work.
Additionally, the fibers can be swallowed, leading to direct asbestos exposure from drinking or consuming contaminated liquids or foods.
According to the American Cancer Society, the people who experience the heaviest asbestos exposure are those who were employed in asbestos industries. Family members of these workers are also at risk, as the asbestos fibers can be carried on clothing articles as well.
In 2005, the World Health Organization estimated that 125 million people around the world were exposed to asbestos in the workplace, despite the health risks that have been known for a substantial number of years. In all, the organization estimates that diseases stemming from asbestos exposure kill approximately 107,000 people worldwide each year.
Because asbestos exposure has been proven to cause a range of serious illnesses, it is important to protect oneself when potentially in the presence of the dangerous material. To do this, the American Cancer Society suggests using protective equipment and following proper safety procedures whenever handling asbestos.
For those concerned that they live near loose asbestos fibers, it can be helpful to have air tests and monitoring conducted, as these can determine whether or not the materials need to be removed, according to the American Cancer Society.
Some of the major diseases that can be contracted as a result of asbestos exposure include asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that occurs in the tissues surrounding the majority of the body's internal organs.
Symptoms of such asbestos-related illnesses often include shortness of breath, persistent coughing, chest pain or tightness, difficulty swallowing, loss of appetite and weight loss, according to the National Cancer Institute. The symptoms of many asbestos-related diseases can take 20 to 40 years to develop, making it difficult to determine when asbestos exposure occurred, according to the Mayo Clinic.