Asbestos: History and Uses

The term "asbestos" describes six naturally occurring fibrous minerals, namely chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophylitte and actinolite. When mined and processed, asbestos is typically separated into very thin bundles of fibers and then commonly mixed with a binder during processing.

Asbestos has been known to man for centuries and has been used in literally hundreds of products. Asbestos was used because it is strong, insulates well, and resists fire and corrosion. The ancient Greeks used asbestos in their cloth and the Romans used it in their building materials. Common modern uses are as thermal pipe and boiler insulation, spray-applied fire proofing and sound proofing, floor coverings, ceiling tiles, roofing materials and "transite" pipe and sheeting.

Of the six forms of asbestos, chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos) are the most commonly used:

  • Chrysotile is the most commonly used form of asbestos and accounts for approximately 95% of the asbestos found in buildings in the United States.
  • Amosite is found primarily as a fire retardant in thermal insulation products and ceiling tiles.
  • Crocidolite was commonly used in high temperature applications.
Various combinations of asbestos have also been used and these may often be more hazardous to a person's health than a single type of asbestos.

In the United States, asbestos became popular in the early 1900s and its use peaked during WWII into the 1970s. While use of asbestos is not banned by legislation, it is not commonly used by American manufacturers anymore due to health concerns and liability issues. However, there is a strong international market, so imported materials may contain asbestos.

During the late 1960s, evidence emerged indicating that asbestos fibers were a dangerous health risk and by the 1970's, the federal government began to take action. During the 1980's, the concern regarding asbestos resulted in the new industry of asbestos abatement.

The only sure way to identify whether a material is asbestos (containing more than 1% asbestos) is to test the material using specific laboratory methods. Wisconsin state regulatory agencies use the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, 2601 Agriculture Dr., Madison, WI 53718, phone (800) 446-0504. This lab will analyze samples for commercial and private use. Other labs may be listed in the Yellow Pages.

For assistance in addressing asbestos-related issues, please refer to the Regulatory Assistance list.

For more information, contact the DNR Asbestos Coordinator, Amy.Walden@Wisconsin.gov.

Last Revised: Friday August 31 2007