Smarter Living: Chemical Index

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral known for its fire-and heat-resistant properties, was commonly used in insulation and home building materials until the 1970s, when it was found to cause lung disease and lung cancer. Though banned from use in some consumer products, asbestos is still allowed in some building insulation, ceiling tiles, floor tiles and dry wall, as well as automotive brake pads, gaskets and clutches.

Health Concerns

In the United States, approximately 10,000 people per year--more than one person every hour--die from asbestos-related disease. Inhaling asbestos causes scarring of the lungs, a condition known as asbestosis. Asbestosis causes difficulty in breathing, decreased lung function and heart enlargement, disability and death.

Asbestos also causes lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the delicate tissue that surrounds the lung and other internal organs. Cigarette smoking interacts with asbestos to dramatically increase cancer risk. Other cancers that have been linked to asbestos include colorectal, throat, esophageal and kidney cancer, as well as cancers of the gallbladder.


Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, commonly used in insulation and home building materials until the 1970s for its fire- and heat-resistant properties. It is still used today in some building materials such as insulation, ceiling tiles, floor tiles and dry wall, as well as automotive brake pads, gaskets and clutches.

Asbestos fibers can become airborne and breathable if asbestos-containing materials such as insulation, flooring or ceiling tiles become old and flaky. Asbestos fibers are also released into the air during the demolition of a building constructed with asbestos products, along highways as brake pads disintegrate and near facilities where asbestos products are manufactured.

Asbestos deposits underground can contaminate other minerals used in consumer products such as vermiculite and talc; exposure to asbestos in these minerals has caused asbestos-related diseases and cancer. In some parts of the United States, stone, sand and gravel used to surface schoolyards, home sites and roadbeds is contaminated with asbestos. Exposure to asbestos also can occur through drinking contaminated water.

Stay Safe

Asbestos in the home is often found in "cottage cheese" ceilings, exterior asbestos shingles, floor tiles and insulation. If these sources are intact and are not flaking, then it’s best to leave them in place. If they are showing any signs of decay, seek out a licensed asbestos abatement company to test the material.

If asbestos removal from your home or office building is necessary, use a licensed professional. Asbestos material that has been sawed, scraped or sanded is more likely to create a health hazard.

If you’re doing any remodeling, especially in an older home or office, get any suspected material tested.

Take Action

The EPA and the Consumer Products Safety Commission have banned some asbestos products, but this known cancer-causing chemical is still being used today in home-building and automotive products around the country. Affordable alternatives exist for all asbestos uses in the United States. It’s time to eliminate asbestos from the U.S. market. More than forty other countries, most recently South Africa and South Korea, have already done so.

Legislation was introduced in April 2010 to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a weak law dating to 1976 that has failed to protect the American public from harmful chemicals such as asbestos. Reforming chemical policy in this country can ensure that unsafe chemicals are removed from the market and that new chemicals are tested for safety before being put into use.

Learn More

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Toxicological Profile for Asbestos. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service. September 2001. (Retrieved June 1, 2009)

Read NRDC's factsheet on asbestos.

NRDC Protecting People From Unsafe Chemicals

last revised 12/27/2011

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on