Asbestos is a natural mineral substance that can be thrown into a spongy consistency. Asbestos fibers are soft and flexible but resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion. Pure asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can also be mixed into fabric, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger. The microscopic fibers of asbestos cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and exposure to asbestos does not cause any immediate symptoms, making it easy for a person to inhale or swallow the asbestos dust without realizing it.
Once the asbestos fibers are in the body, they never dissolve, and the body has extreme difficulty in expelling them. Over the years, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and, ultimately, genetic damage to body cells.
No amount of exposure to asbestos is safe, but asbestos generally has the worst effects when a person is exposed to an intense concentration of it, or are exposed regularly for a long period of time. Asbestos accumulates in the body with each exposure, and there is no known way to reverse the cell damage it causes.
Asbestosis is a chronic disease characterized by the formation of scars in the lungs, which leads to long-term respiratory complications. It is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos but is usually not diagnosed until decades after the exposure occurred.