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A Question of Responsibility

Whose Asbestos Caused Her Lung Disease?


Joy M. Branlund
Department of Physical Science
Southwestern Illinois College


Most students are aware that asbestos is a health hazard, but don’t know that “asbestos” refers to a variety of minerals with both useful and harmful properties. In this case, students answer questions they have about asbestos in the context of a personal injury lawsuit. They learn about different asbestos types and uses, as well as how people are exposed to and harmed by asbestos. Students apply what they learn to the lawsuit presented in the case as well as in a follow-up activity in which they weigh the risks of leaving asbestos in public buildings against the risks of removing it.


  • Distinguish between asbestiform minerals, non-asbestiform fibers, and asbestos as defined by laws and regulatory agencies.
  • Compare and contrast the five different varieties of amphibole and one type of serpentine that are regulated as asbestos. Comment specifically on each mineral’s structure, how the mineral forms fibers, and the qualities of each mineral’s fibers.
  • Identify the properties that make asbestos useful and the properties that make it harmful. Discuss how specific mineral properties lead both to the usefulness and harmfulness of asbestos.
  • Describe (in general) how asbestos enters the body and causes harm. Summarize the conditions under which asbestos exposure most likely will lead to disease.


Mineralogy; mineral fiber; asbestos; asbestosis; mesothelioma; amphibole; serpentine; asbestos removal; asbestos abatement; lawsuit

Topical Areas

Legal issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Geology  |   Earth Science  |   Environmental Science  |   Public Health  |   Toxicology  |   Epidemiology  |  

Date Posted


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John A. Pickrell DVM, PhD, DABT
Comparative Toxicology Laboratories / College of Veterinary Medicine
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506-5606
This is an interesting case. Typical cases of crocidolite (very small amphibole; deposited in deep lung) were seen in daughters whose fathers worked with ship insulation of crocidolite asbestos from South Africa (it is called “Cape Blue” crocidolite). The fathers came home and whacked their shirts on the porch as their daughters were waiting to hug them. Twenty-five to 40 years later, the girls, now mothers, developed mesothelioma and often died.

Until recently, crocidolite was the only asbestos with direct cause from the asbestos alone. Recently, erionite asbestos (not mentioned in your research) was found to be the source of additional lung cancers. Chrysotile is the source of more than 80% of all asbestos in the U.S. It is serpentine and therefore too curvy to deposit in sufficient quantity to work its way into the thoracic mesothelium. Amosite asbestos is the right shape, but not small enough for maximum deposition, as is tremolite. Grunerite is too large for maximum deposition and not as durable as amosite, chrysotile or crocidolite asbestos.

To answer your questions, if I were an expert witness, or jury member, I’d like to know what kind of asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos for this chain of toxicity would be a hard sell, it’s hard to inhale enough. Only crocidolite and erionite have been traced directly to human lung cancer.

To establish liability, one would need to examine possible release scenarios. Usually chrysotile makes it much harder to convince anyone of this type of exposure, because it is hard to see the potential threat. It’s not small enough or durable enough (it is more rapidly broken down in water (days and weeks, as opposed to more than years).

Asbestos with cement is less toxic than say that which comes from brake linings. Brake linings grind and make asbestos have smaller cross sectional area, depositing in deeper lung. Thus, cement companies with the wrong asbestos are relatively hard to pin down and collect on.

I know of two real cases where there was almost no doubt. One was described in the first paragraph and involved chrysotile asbestos. The second one was in Turkey. Only husbands, not wives or children, got mesothelioma. Eech day the males that got this had eaten lunch on a rock next to a cool waterfall pool and went swimming there time permitting. The wives and kids lived some distance away and weren’t exposed. More than half of the men got mesotheliomas and it took a long time to track it down (>5–10 years). It was finally identified as erionite asbestos, an amphibole asbestos, which has quite a small odiameter. It was more durable than grunerite (from Minnesota mines). The exposure was high, over very long time periods.

In my opinion, this chrysotile is an interesting case because the exposure scenario was right and had happened, but with an entirely different asbestos, usually not found in the U.S. Secondly, it was an asbestos containing cement with a complicated composition, less likely to cause mesithelioma. Finally, it was a serpentine asbestos, not an amphibole.

They could probably find out which asbestos, because it usually does not cause mesothelioma and the company knows this. Also, unless one had documentation a high percentage of U.S. asbestos is chrysotile, the most curved and least durable of the asbestos.

The questions asked in this case were relevant to those which would be asked in real life and the scenario is realistic.