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The term "asbestos" has been given to six naturally occurring mineral fibers that have been used for commercial purposes. It can be found in hundreds of countries on just about every continent. These fibers belong to two separate mineral groups, known as serpentine and amphibole.

The serpentine group, usually of a curly form, contains only one asbestiform variety, referred to as chrysotile. The amphibole group, which is straight and needle-like, contains five asbestiform varieties: anthophyllite, grunerite (amosite), riebeckite (crocidolite), tremolite, and actinolite.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines has listed more than 100 mineral fibers as "asbestos-like" fibers, but the United States government only regulates the six aforementioned forms (primarily due to effective lobbying on behalf of the asbestos and stone industries).

These very fine fibers are separable, hundreds of times thinner than human hairs, and too small to be seen with the naked eye. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines fibers of concern as at least five micrometers long and at least three times as long as their diameters. For a frame of reference, mineralogists work with fibers as much as a thousand times as long as their diameters.

Types of Asbestos

The six recognized asbestos minerals, which are considered silicates (molecules that include silicon and oxygen), include:

  • Chrysotile - (Also known as white or green asbestos, from the Greek word meaning "fine, silky hair") Appears as curly, whitish fibers and constitutes 95 percent of the asbestos in use. Chrysotile is mined throughout the world, but most of the United State's chrysotile supply comes from Canada, Africa, and former USSR. Scientists believe this to be the least toxic of all asbestos forms.

  • Crocidolite - (Also known as riebeckite or blue asbestos) Composed of straight fibers, most crocidolite comes from southern Africa and Australia. It is believed to be the most toxic form of all asbestos minerals.

  • Amosite - (Also known as cummingtonite-grunerite or brown asbestos) The trade name "amosite" is an acronym for Asbestos Mines of South Africa, after the Amosa mines. Amosite is also straight in shape, but brittle in structure and excellent for use in heat insulation.

  • Anthophyllite - This form of asbestos is brittle, white, and contains various forms of iron. It has been found to have excellent resistance to chemicals and heat.

  • Tremolite - In rough form, tremolite appears white and chalky. Tremolite can also be naturally found in other mineral forms aside from asbestiform. It has been the major ingredient in industrial and commercial talc.

  • Actinolite - Typically prismatic, flat in structure, and elongated. Actinolite also comes in forms other than asbestiform and has poor resistance to chemicals.

The last five amphibole (which translates to "ambiguous" in Greek) types have a slightly more complex crystal structure than chrysotile and are not used as extensively in commercial products as chrysotile. Due to their structure, amphiboles tend to stay in the lungs longer than chrysotile and are more likely to cause illness because of this factor. Some hypothesize very small contaminations of amphibole fibers within chrysotile are most to blame for cancer deaths caused by asbestos exposure.

This information is taken from
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