In the construction and building renovation industry, drywall workers are among those who risk exposure to asbestos in the course of doing their jobs. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of asbestos cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs and body organs. In addition to its well-known use as a fire-retardant and heat insulator, asbestos was also used as a reinforcing or binding agent in plastics and cement. As such, asbestos was used in building materials including plaster, drywall tape and drywall joint compound.
Drywall, which is a thin layer of gypsum between two layers of heavy paper, is commonly used when building or replacing walls and ceilings because it is both faster and cheaper to install than plaster. It became popular for those reasons during World War II. The two kinds of drywall workers are installers and tapers.
Installers, also called applicators or hangers, fasten drywall panels to a building's inside framework. They are often required to cut the drywall panels in order to fit them around doorways and windows and must create cut-outs for electric outlets, vents, plumbing and the like.
Drywall tapers, or finishers, then tape and finish joints and imperfections in the drywall in preparation for the panels to be painted. They spread drywall joint compound into each side of drywall joints, then press a paper tape into the wet compound to reinforce the drywall and to hide imperfections. They also cover nail and screw depressions with this compound, along with imperfections caused by the installation of heating vents and other fixtures. The drywall joint compound is then sanded, and this whole process repeated until the entire surface is smooth and ready to paint. Some tapers apply textured surfaces to walls and ceilings with trowels, brushes, or spray guns.
Although asbestos has not been used as a component of drywall products since the 1980s, asbestos-containing dust may be generated during wall repair or demolition of buildings constructed before 1980. While the use of hand tools or drills with dust-collection devices fitted with a HEPA filter can reduce the chance of asbestos exposure, major work involving asbestos-containing drywall products should be undertaken with extreme care.
In March, 2007, a San Francisco jury awarded the family of a former drywall taper more than $868,000 in a trial against a former manufacturer and supplier of asbestos-containing joint compound, spray texture, and acoustical ceiling spray.
The jury in the trial found that the products manufactured Rich-Tex, Inc., a Richmond, California, company, were responsible for the asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma that caused the 2003 death of Douglas Ivance, a San Francisco-area resident who had worked for 47 years as a drywall taper.
From 1963 to 1977, Rich-Tex manufactured and supplied drywall products that contained asbestos, including joint compound, spray texture and acoustical ceiling spray. Rich-Tex supplied asbestos-containing drywall products to the majority of Mr. Ivance's employers during that time period.
Mesothelioma lawyers for the plaintiff presented evidence showing that hazardous asbestos dust was released when Rich-Tex's drywall products were mixed, applied, sanded, and/or cleaned up according to product instructions. This dust was then inhaled by Ivance and his co-workers.
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure generally do not appear for 20 or more years after initial exposure, so even people who haven't worked as a drywall installer or drywall taper in many years may still be at risk for receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis or another asbestos-related disease. Such workers are urged to discuss their possible asbestos exposure with their doctor and to receive regular check-ups for any signs of asbestos-related disease.