Drywall and Asbestos Exposure

Summary

Drywall is one of the most common building products used in the construction industry. Gypsum wallboard, or sheetrock as it is better known, has been used across the building spectrum in residential, commercial and industrial building projects for over seventy years. American drywallers hung and taped millions of square feet of drywall every year for decades.

Nowadays, drywall board, tape and joint compounds are safe to work with, but before the 1980s, almost all drywall products used in the United States contained dangerous amounts of asbestos.

The United States Gypsum Company invented drywall in 1916. It was a simple solution to the old, time-consuming process of finishing interior walls with lath and plaster. Drywall was a wallboard sheet product made of a gypsum-based core sandwiched between two paper layers. Drywall sheets were cut on site and installed on bare wall studs to cover mechanical components. Workers then finished sheetrock with a paper tape followed by multiple coats of a semi-liquid joint compound.

Drywall finishing took multiple stages with a drying time between each coat. Workers needed three to four coats of the joint compound to create a smooth, seamless surface that was ready for paint or wallpaper. Each coat required sanding, and that released clouds of fine particles into the air. Every drywaller, whether cutting and hanging board or sanding seams, experienced constant drywall dust exposure.

Asbestos Use in Drywall Products

Drywall became a favorite building product during the Second World War. The combination of wartime labor shortage and need for speed in construction projects proved drywall as a superior wall finish process over lath and plaster. When America’s suburb building boom took off in the post-war period, finishers were comfortable with using drywall. Lath and plaster disappeared, and drywall has been the primary interior wall finish system ever since.

MJN Brief

Asbestos found its way into drywall products in the 1940s. It was thought to be the perfect additive to gypsum wallboard, tape and joint compound. Asbestos blended into gypsum formed a material called transite. This substance was technically manufactured under a brand name but was so familiar that most drywall filling and coating was colloquially called “transite.”

 

Asbestos fibers made up to 50 percent of transite materials for these reasons:

  • Made drywall products more stable.
  • Asbestos lightened drywall sheets.
  • Better insulation or R-value came from asbestos-filled drywall and mud.
  • Asbestos was a natural fireproof material.
  • Better flexibility and durability properties of asbestos materials.
  • Asbestos drywall had better acoustical control than plain gypsum.

By the 1960s, dangers of airborne asbestos exposure became known. No industry used more asbestos-containing materials (ACM) than drywall boarders and tapers. Their entire work environment clouded with asbestos dust, and they worked in this polluted atmosphere for years, without being dust mask equipped.

Asbestos was removed from drywall by the 1980s when regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned asbestos from building materials. It’s safe to say that almost all American buildings built between 1950 and 1980 contained asbestos-based drywall.

Health Risks from Drywall Asbestos Exposure

Once the asbestos-containing drywall is finished and sealed, there is almost no health risk to building occupants. The danger occurred when workers were cutting and installing sheetrock and then while tapers mixed joint compound and sanded dry mud. However, there are millions of American homes built during that thirty-year period full of asbestos drywall. Many have, are, or will be undergoing renovations and disturbing old asbestos drywall.

Airborne asbestos fibers are known carcinogens. When inhaled, microscopic asbestos particles attach to the lung lining or what’s known as the mesothelium. Asbestos shards stay in the mesothelium forever. They can’t break down like organic compounds, nor can they expel. Asbestos fibers are irritants causing scar tissue that eventually turns into cancer tumors. This fatal disease is called mesothelioma which can take from 10 to 50 years to develop.

Compensation for Mesothelioma Caused by Drywall Products

Tragically, once mesothelioma is in an advanced state nothing can be done. The only recourse a mesothelioma victim has is to sue the asbestos drywall manufacturer and supplier. Compensation is available for medical expenses, personal injury damages and lost income. Families can file lawsuits on behalf of members with mesothelioma as well as unlawful death claims.