How Asbestos Works

What Does Asbestos Look Like?

Asbestos Control Inc.'s Edward Zalig holds a pile of asbestos cleaned out from pipe insulation in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
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In most commercial forms, asbestos looks like attic insulation -- a ball of thick fuzz. The individual asbestos fibers that are released into the air are microscopic. The U.S. government defines asbestos as a naturally occurring group of fibrous minerals that are very strong, can be woven, and resist heat and most chemicals [source: EPA]. The current federal definition includes these classes of asbestos:

  • Chrystotile
  • Amphibole (with subsets:crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite)

While both chrystotile and amphibole are known to cause respiratory diseases, the more durable, thinner strands of amphibole asbestos are considered more dangerous and more likely to cause mesothelioma (a form of cancer caused by asbestos) because they tend to stay in the lungs longer [source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry]. However, the more flexible chrystotile asbestos is used in about 95 percent of all asbestos in commercial products and is still considered carcinogenic [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].


Asbestos has been used for thousands of years, dating as far back as the ancient Greeks. Its durability and ability to withstand heat and erosion made it attractive to builders, and it was even used in some clothing because of its fire-resistant qualities. Modern asbestos production began in 1868 through mining deposits [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].

Reports of long-term harmful effects of asbestos exposure began appearing in the 1970s, although dangers associated with asbestos were suspected decades earlier. In 1989, the U.S. government issued a ban on products containing asbestos. This regulation was overturned in 1991, but certain products were still banned, as were "new uses" of asbestos [source: EPA]. So where do we find asbestos? Read on to find out.