Products made with asbestos-containing materials were immensely popular during the 20th century. America had over a hundred years of continuous manufacturing products with Asbestos-Containing Materials (ACM). From the late 1800s to the mid-1980s, manufacturers supplied the American market with over 3,000 different and unique products composed of asbestos fibers. Though industrial consumers revered asbestos, the medical community condemned its use. Physicians, pathologists, and researchers knew just how dangerous asbestos was to human health.
Widespread Asbestos Use
Asbestos showed up in products everywhere from Navy ships to drug store cosmetic counters. Life magazine made a bold statement in the 1940s, they called asbestos the “miracle material.” Meanwhile, medical journals and papers on scientific studies conclusively linked different forms of asbestos fibers to nasty respiratory disease like asbestosis, lung cancer, and other pleural disorders. They had yet to discover that asbestos products lead to the rare and deadly cancer called mesothelioma. By 1964, the truth about the link between mesothelioma and asbestos had surfaced.
Asbestos appeared to be the miracle product material for excellent reasons. Asbestos was chemically inert so that product manufacturers could blend asbestos fibers into all sorts of different materials without a chemical reaction. This quality made asbestos safe and simple to handle during all manufacturing processes, which opened asbestos use across most American industries.
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.
Because of its resistance to heat, asbestos was considered perfect for steam engines, invented in the1800s. 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 non-conductive which suited the electrical industry fine. Automotive assemblers found asbestos resisted friction and wear.
Automobile makers manufactured brakes, clutches and gaskets from asbestos resulting in every American car, truck and heavy equipment piece containing asbestos parts.
The emerging aerospace industry also endorsed ACM. Not only was it great for isolating temperatures and controlling fires, but asbestos was lightweight, flexible and added exceptional strength to everything one added it to.
Asbestos product manufacturers thrived on the fact that asbestos was widely available and cheap to source. Many unscrupulous product manufacturers knew about asbestos exposure health dangers and put personal profits before workers’ health. Many asbestos product producers, suppliers, and distributors underplayed, ignored or hid information on asbestos-related health issues.
Diseases Caused by Exposure to Asbestos Products
There are over a dozen different diseases known to be caused by asbestos exposure. Many variables affect a person’s odds of developing an asbestos-related disease. They include the type of asbestos, the dose or amount, duration or time of exposure, lifestyle issues like smoking or pre-existing disease and individual genetic disposition.
The most common diseases related to asbestos products are:
- Asbestosis, benign scar tissue in lungs.
- Lung cancer, which are cancerous tumors inside the lung.
- Mesothelioma is cancerous tumors in the lung, heart, abdomen and testicle linings.
- Ovarian, kidney, and larynx cancer tumors.
Less serious asbestos-related diseases include pleural plaque, pleural effusion and pleural thickening. These are non-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 how dangerous exposure to asbestos products was. However, we still don’t know just how many people suffered asbestos-related diseases or died after prolonged asbestos exposure. American statistics weren’t kept before the 1960s, and many early asbestos illnesses were diagnosed as other ailments.
Regulators in the United States federal government started taking steps in the 1970s to ban all manufactured products containing asbestos materials. That included the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). By the late 1980s, authorities made inroads in banning some asbestos products although many asbestos products are still legal in America today.
U.S. federal legislation lists ACM products individually identified as banned substances. They also dictate which products are permitted but highly controlled.
The three critical American laws affecting asbestos products are:
- Toxic Substances Control Act
- Clean Air Act
- Consumer Product Safety Act
Friable asbestos products present the highest exposure danger. They are expressly prohibited for sale or use. Friable refers to easy-crumbling asbestos that can be ground into airborne dust with hand pressure.
Examples of banned asbestos products include:
- Commercial paper
- Corrugated paper
- Flooring and roofing felt
- Fireplace embers
- Pipe and block insulation
- Specialty paper
- Spray-applied ACM
- Wall patch compounds
United States legislation permits other asbestos products if they contain less than 1% asbestos material. Legislations don’t specify if that’s the standard chrysotile serpentine asbestos type or the more dangerous amphibole fiber group. Regulations 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 holding asbestos products. 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 and likely still in service 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 America is impossible. There were far too many products made with ACM. 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.
These are the general groups of asbestos-containing products:
- Adhesives, sealants, and paints
- Automotive friction and fireproofing materials
- Building products like drywall, shingles, and tiles
- Cement powders and mortar mixes
- Electrical and mechanical components
- Fireproofing and heat control
- Gaskets, hoses, and valves
- Heating and air-conditioning equipment
- Home and consumer use
- Insulation products
- Pipe and block work
- Protective clothing
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 any safe exposure to asbestos.
Many legal precedents exist where negligent asbestos products have been held civilly responsible for endangering health through careless exposure. The standard of proof must show a person’s health was seriously affected by exposure to specific products made by a particular manufacturer. Simple exposure to asbestos products without significant effects does not meet a legal responsibility threshold.
Compensation is usually made for asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma cases. Awards cover expenses for medical costs, lost income, and personal injury damages. Families can claim on behalf of members suffering asbestos-related diseases. They can also file lawsuits in wrongful death cases.