Asbestos has a number of desirable properties that led to its widespread use in many industries and applications. Asbestos fibers, depending somewhat on type, have outstanding thermal stability (e.g., they do not evaporate, dissolve, or burn), have good strength properties (e.g., high tensile strength and resistance to wear and friction), provide good insulation (e.g., sound, electrical), and do not undergo significant reactions with most chemicals. By the 1970s, over 3,000 uses of asbestos had been identified. The use of asbestos has declined since the 1970s. Asbestos has not been mined in the US since 2002.
Epidemiological studies (mostly of asbestos-exposed workers) and supporting animal studies indicate that sufficient inhalation exposure to asbestos fibers may lead to the development of pulmonary disease, including asbestosis (i.e., a non-malignant fibrotic lung disease), lung cancer, and mesothelioma of the pleura or peritoneum. Physical and chemical differences between the fiber types are associated with different degrees of toxicity. While it has been known for many decades that significant cumulative exposures to airborne asbestos increases the risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, the state of knowledge of asbestos as a human health hazard has evolved over time.
The legacy of asbestos use continues to pose complex health and environmental challenges, garnering significant attention.
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