While asbestos has prevented billions of dollars in property damage over the decades and saved people from serious burns and burn related injuries, it has also been responsible for a great deal of misery from the various respiratory diseases that have resulted from exposure to it, including asbestosis and cancer of the pleural lining (mesothelioma) and lung.
Asbestos insulating blankets are one example of how the use of asbestos has been a double-edged sword. These insulating blankets have been used for furnaces, steam pipes and numerous industrial applications in which heat from steel furnaces and welding torches have posed a danger. Asbestos insulating and welding blankets, as well as asbestos gloves, aprons and full fire suits are manufactured from asbestos fabric and/or lined with asbestos. Like any fabric, these materials are subject to normal wear and fraying. They can also be torn open, releasing asbestos fibers into the work environment.
Damaged asbestos insulating blankets served to exacerbate the asbestos problems that already existed on many industrial work sites; welding performed in ship yards and automobile factories took place in environments where asbestos was used extensively in building materials such as brake shoes and pipe lagging.
This problem continues to exist. Although asbestos insulating blankets, welding blankets, aprons and gloves have been phased out over the past few decades in favor of silica and carbon fiber fabrics in the U.S. , the use of asbestos continues unabated in China . A Hong Kong based organization called ASPEC has continued to monitor the use of asbestos in Chinese factories (a large number of which manufacture products for the U.S. market today) and has found that the use of asbestos insulating blankets and similar items has caused asbestos contamination of steel coils and other pressed metal products with which they were in contact. This has also caused asbestos contamination in the cargo holds of the sea-going vessels used to transport these products, presenting a possible danger to ship board personnel as well as longshoremen and dock workers.
Those who work as welders today should also be aware of a DOE report from 1987, which describes cases of workers who became ill and passed out from toxic fumes given off by protective fabrics that replaced asbestos fabrics at the time. While these particular substitutes have also been phased out over time, they may continue to be in use in some places.