It is true that over the past 120 years or so, asbestos has saved billions of dollars worth of property. It has also saved hundreds of thousands of people from painful and debilitating burn injuries. However, given what is now known about asbestos, one wonders if the cure wasn’t as bad – or worse – than the disease.
Asbestos aprons are a case in point. Such aprons, as well as welding blankets and gloves, were manufactured using asbestos cloth, and/or contained asbestos inside the linings. These were used on many industrial worksites where open flame and/or molten steel posed a risk of injury. Like any garments, asbestos aprons eventually became worn or ripped. The result was the release of millions of friable asbestos fibers in to the working environment – adding to the millions already present on these worksites from pipe lagging, electrical insulation, work surfaces, furnace insulation, manufactured components and dozens of other sources.
Depending on the type of asbestos used, breathing these fibers may result in asbestosis, pleural plaques, and even mesothelioma and asbestos- related lung cancer. Although the progression of asbestosis can be stopped by removing the victim from the asbestos-ridden environment, there are no cures for asbestos-caused malignancies.
Thanks to the wholesale export of American manufacturing by U.S. corporations, such asbestos products continue to be manufactured in China, where asbestos regulations hardly exist, and are then shipped back to the U.S. ASPEC, a Hong Kong based organization that monitors the use of asbestos in Chinese industry, reports that the same asbestos cloth used in welding aprons has been used in the cargo holds of freighters in which numerous products are shipped. This results not only in the contamination of these products but also the cargo holds, posing an additional hazard for longshoremen and others who work aboard such seafaring vessels.
Many of the asbestos substitutes used in the manufacture of welding aprons are not necessarily safer than asbestos. In 1987, a DOE report contained information on workers who had become seriously ill breathing toxic fumes given off by the material in welding aprons as these were exposed to heat in the course of arc welding tasks.
The safest and most effective alternatives to asbestos welding aprons today are either those made from silica cloth, which releases relatively little in the way of toxic vapors, or carbon-based fabric, a patent for which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in November of 2005.