What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a very potent cancer causing agent. Because of its widespread use in Navy ships, construction materials, and thousands of other products, many Hawai’i residents have been exposed to this hazardous material.

Naturally Occurring Mineral With Special Properties

Asbestos itself is a naturally-occurring mineral with some very special physical properties. It is made up of bundles of thin flexible fibers, which are highly resistant to heat and chemicals. Asbestos fibers are very strong, have low electrical conductivity and are flexible enough to be woven. These properties made asbestos extremely useful in a wide range of products and applications. Asbestos was used in an incredible variety of products to provide heat, electrical and sound insulation, as an inexpensive binder, for protection against acids and as filter media.

Historical use of asbestos reaches back to at least ancient Greece and probably much earlier, but most of it was used in the last century. By the 1950s and 1960s, asbestos was in extremely widespread use. At the peak of asbestos use in the United States, there were literally thousands of asbestos products.

Asbestos fibers were woven into various textiles for fireproofing and insulation. It was combined with other material such as cement, plastics and resins as a binder or filler material to add strength, thermal protection and electrical resistance. Many gaskets and packing material contained asbestos, especially for use in high pressure or temperature pumps and valves. Asbestos was used in most major industries including shipyards, power plants, oil refineries, steel mills, automobile factories, railroads, airplane manufacturing, paper mills, foundries, etc.

Millions Exposed to Asbestos

Throughout the 20th century, asbestos was used in numerous products and locations in Hawai’i, from U.S. Navy vessels to home appliances. As a result, thousands of Hawai’i residents have been exposed to this hazardous material. Navy seamen, shipyard workers, boilermakers, electricians, insulators, and construction workers often had heavy occupational exposure to asbestos.

However, there are many other ways that Hawai’i residents may have been exposed to toxic asbestos dust. Bystander exposure, household exposure and environmental exposure can all cause asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Unaware of Exposure

Many people are unaware that they have been exposed to asbestos. You cannot necessarily tell that a product contains asbestos just by looking at it. Common products such as thermal insulation, fireproofing, sound insulation, textile, gasket, packing, drywall, joint compound, electrical insulation and friction products usually contained asbestos, until at least the 1970s. The asbestos content ranged from less than one percent to as high as 100 percent and potential exposure existed during all phases of the production, transportation, storage, installation, removal and disposal of these products. Residential construction and home renovation used many asbestos-containing products including textured ceilings, drywall, floor and ceiling tiles, siding and roofing. Damage, deterioration and replacement of these materials can still lead to possible exposure if the asbestos fibers are released into the air.

Some do-it-yourself home remodeling projects have inadvertently exposed household members to asbestos. Some appliances such as furnaces, toasters, irons, ovens, hair dryers or miscellaneous items such as toys, artificial snow and pot holders may also contribute to household exposures.

Epidemic of Asbestos-Related Cancers

Tragically, this widespread use of asbestos has led to an epidemic of cancer and other asbestos related diseases among Navy Veterans, Pearl Harbor shipyard workers, insulators, and other industrial workers and their families. Although asbestos was phased out of most products by the late 1980’s, it was never banned. There are still asbestos materials in many older homes, public buildings, schools, and some older Navy vessels. Thus, people today can still be exposed to toxic asbestos products that were manufactured decades ago.

If you have been exposed to asbestos on the job, at home or in your neighborhood, you may be at an elevated risk for mesothelioma. You should consult your primary care physician about your history of asbestos exposure to determine whether you should be screened for possible asbestos disease.