Asbestos Products

Products made with asbestos-containing materials were immensely popular during the 20th century. From the late 1800s to the early 1980s, manufacturers supplied the American market with over 3,000 different and unique products composed of asbestos fibers.

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Widespread Asbestos Use

Asbestos showed up in products everywhere from Navy ships to drug store cosmetic counters. Life Magazine called asbestos a “miracle material” in the 1940s.

Asbestos appeared to be a miracle for many reasons.

It was chemically inert, so product manufacturers could blend asbestos fibers into all sorts of different materials without a chemical reaction. This made asbestos safe and simple to handle during all manufacturing processes, which opened asbestos use across most American industries.

The Deadly Truth

Though industrial consumers revered asbestos, the medical community condemned its use. Physicians, pathologists, and researchers knew just how dangerous asbestos was to human health.

Medical journals and scientific studies conclusively linked different forms of asbestos fibers to respiratory diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer, and other pleural disorders. The medical dangers first came to light in the 1930s but were hidden by companies that made asbestos-containing products.

Researchers had yet to discover that asbestos products lead to the rare and deadly cancer called mesothelioma. However, by 1964, the truth about the link between mesothelioma and asbestos had surfaced.

Asbestos Product Properties

Asbestos products were implemented in industrial capacities for their fireproofing and thermal control properties. Being able to withstand high temperatures, asbestos products were desirable in high-heat and high-combustion settings, as asbestos wouldn’t burn under any conditions.

Numerous industries valued and used asbestos for the following reasons:

  • Because of its resistance to heat, asbestos was considered perfect for steam engines in the 1800s.
  • Asbestos liners in boilers and fireboxes controlled heat in amazing ways. Shipbuilders found asbestos products perfect, as they were non-corrosive and absorbed sound like no other material yet discovered.
  • Asbestos was also non-conductive, which made it useful in the electrical industry.
  • In the automotive industry, assemblers found asbestos resisted friction and wear. Automobile makers manufactured brakes, clutches, and gaskets from asbestos. This resulted in every American car, truck, and heavy equipment piece containing asbestos parts.
  • The emerging aerospace industry also endorsed asbestos. Not only was it great for isolating temperatures and controlling fires, but it was lightweight, flexible, and added exceptional strength to any product that used it as an ingredient.

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Manufacturers of asbestos-containing products revered it because it was cheap, durable, and fire resistant.

Although they were aware of how dangerous asbestos was to human health, they hid the truth for decades. These manufacturers put their own profits ahead of people’s lives.

Diseases Caused by Asbestos Inhalation

Asbestos is a carcinogen and may lead to one or more diseases in those who have inhaled its fibers.

The most common diseases related to asbestos products are:

  • Asbestosisbenign scar tissue in the lungs
  • Lung cancer: cancerous tumors grow inside the lung
  • Mesothelioma: cancer masses develop in the lung, heart, abdomen and testicle linings
  • Other cancers: asbestos-related cancer can develop in the ovaries, kidneys, and larynx

Other, less serious, conditions related to asbestos include pleural plaques, pleural effusion, and pleural thickening. These are not life-threatening, unlike the main asbestos-caused diseases.

However, all asbestos-related diseases have a long latency or dormancy period. Authorities now focus on stopping asbestos product manufacturing through bans or severe market restrictions.

Banning Asbestos Products

It’s estimated that 27 million Americans were exposed to asbestos products during the 20th century.

By the 1970s, it was no longer possible to hold back the massive amount of information proving the dangers of asbestos exposure.

However, since the dangers had been downplayed and hid for so long, it remains unknown how many people suffered or died from exposure before then. Statistics weren’t kept before the 1960s, and many early asbestos illnesses were diagnosed as other ailments.

Regulators in the U.S. federal government started taking steps in the late 1970s to control products containing asbestos materials.

That included regulators such as:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)

By the late 1980s, authorities had successfully banned some asbestos products, although many are still legal in the U.S. today.

U.S. federal legislation lists asbestos products individually identified as banned substances. They also dictate which products are permitted but highly controlled.

The three U.S. laws affecting asbestos products are:

  1. Clean Air Act
  2. Consumer Product Safety Act
  3. Toxic Substances Control Act

Friable (easily crumbled) asbestos products present the highest exposure danger. They are expressly prohibited for sale or use.

Examples of banned asbestos products include:

  • Commercial paper
  • Corrugated paper
  • Flooring and roofing felt
  • Fireplace embers
  • Pipe and block insulation
  • Rollboard
  • Specialty paper
  • Spray-applied ACM
  • Wall patch compounds

Permitted Asbestos Levels in the U.S.

United States legislation permits other asbestos products if they contain less than 1% asbestos material.

These laws do not specify what type of products are banned based on the type of asbestos used, as all types of asbestos are dangerous. Regulations do permit manufacturing products that historically contained asbestos-like brake pads and clutch plates.

On the other hand, it’s illegal to manufacture “new use” products that didn’t previously contain asbestos.

Millions of American homes, public buildings, and factories were built with asbestos-containing materials. Most of these still stand today with their asbestos products intact.

The same applies to ships and heavy equipment, although massive asbestos abatement programs removed friable asbestos materials. Federal regulations specify strict steps workers must take to remove or work around asbestos products.

Products That Contain Asbestos

Comprehensive lists of specific asbestos-containing products are available on the EPA, OSHA, and CPSC websites. Many experts have also accumulated a list of the thousands of products once made with asbestos that may still be in use today.

Many lists identify which asbestos products are prohibited and which are controlled. Industries and applications are organized by groups.

Examples of prominent sectors using asbestos products include:

  • Residential, commercial, and industrial construction
  • Automotive and heavy equipment manufacturers
  • Aircraft and aerospace production
  • Shipbuilding and ship repairing
  • Consumer product manufacturing

Finding a complete list of every product made or imported into the U.S. is impossible because so many products relied on asbestos.

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The most common exposures were in building products and automotive parts, but asbestos showed up in obscure products like cigarette filters, toothpaste, and ironing board covers as well.

These are the general groups of asbestos-containing products:

  • Adhesives, sealants, and paints
  • Automotive fireproofing materials
  • Building products like drywall, shingles, and tiles
  • Cement powders/mortar mixes
  • Electrical and mechanical components
  • Fireproofing and heat control

The safest way to approach many products is assuming they contain asbestos and taking protective precautions. Small samples can be tested in labs to confirm or rule out asbestos contamination before handling them.

Although the EPA and OSHA have allowable tolerances for workplace airborne asbestos exposure, most medical authorities state there is no such thing as a safe exposure to asbestos.

Compensation for Asbestos-Related Diseases

The court system has repeatedly held negligent companies responsible for endangering the public with their asbestos products. Winning compensation requires proof a person’s health was seriously affected by exposure to specific products made by a particular manufacturer.

Compensation is usually made for asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma cases. Awards cover expenses for medical costs, lost income, and personal injury damages.

To seek this compensation, those with mesothelioma should work with an experienced lawyer who can help them through the legal process. Families can also file a claim if the affected person is too sick, or file a wrongful death lawsuit if they have died.

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Author:Stephanie Kidd
Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd is the Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network and works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful, and helpful.

Last modified: July 11, 2019

View 3 Sources
  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “US Federal Bans on Asbestos Products” Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos Accessed on 20 December, 2017
  2. United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration “Asbestos Standards – Products” Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/standards.html Accessed on 20 December, 2017
  3. Province of Ontario, Ministry of Labor, “List of Suspects Asbestos-Containing Building Materials” Retrieved from https://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/pubs/asbestos/asbst_app2.php Accessed on 20 December, 2017