Plastics and Asbestos Exposure

Summary

Envisioning a world without plastics is difficult. Most people pay little attention to plastics except for using a product manufactured from plastic. Today, computers and smartphones are among the highest-used plastic-based devices. Plastics make up cases, circuit boards and charging cords. They also make up a vast variety of other consumer products.

Plastic parts have been accessible since the mid-1800s. And before the 1980s, many plastic components contained lethal quantities of asbestos.

Alexander Parkes took credit for inventing the first plastic piece. In 1856, he patented it under the brand name Celluloid. Parkes was trying for a synthetic ivory substitute, but his new plastic process had a big problem. Celluloid was notoriously combustible and quickly exploded in flames.

A chemist named Baekeland refined plastics in 1907 using a thermosetting process. He got the idea of solving the fire issue by adding raw asbestos fibers into the molten mixture before molding phenol-formaldehyde resin. To his surprise, not only did asbestos make plastic pieces inflammable, but they also lightened and strengthened the parts. Baekeland patented his product as “Bakelite” and called it “the material of a thousand uses.”

Asbestos Use in Plastics

Baekeland was right about asbestos-containing materials (ACM) improving plastic performance. His practice of adding asbestos fibers in plastic resins became popular. Other companies experimented with asbestos in nylon, polypropylene, phenolics and polyvinyl chlorine polymers. Not surprising, asbestos worked well with all these chemicals.

Asbestos suited the plastic industry because it was chemically inert. All sorts of plastic-based chemicals blended with asbestos with no harsh reaction. Asbestos proved to be non-corrosive and non-conductive. It was a miracle material for the electronics industry.

Because asbestos was user-friendly, widely sourced and inexpensive to implement, asbestos found its way into thousands of plastic products over an eight-decade period. In fact, there were few plastic processors not adding asbestos fibers to their resins.

Some industries implementing asbestos in plastics included:

  • Automotive manufacturers for underhood components, wire insulation and interior compartment finishes.
  • Aerospace factories for lightweight and insulating construction including weapons and guidance systems.
  • Electrical component producers for non-conductive and non-flammable applications.
  • Consumer goods for heat protection on cookware and appliances.
  • Plumbing supplies for plastic water piping and fixture connections.

Asbestos Fiber Exposure from Plastics

Most plastic pieces made with asbestos fibers were relatively safe and stable once manufactured, installed and left undisturbed. Millions of plastic components containing asbestos particles are still in service and safely used. They’ll remain in place for years to come and pose little danger as long as they’re left alone.

The risk from asbestos fiber exposure came when ACM plastic pieces became old and brittle. Dried ACM plastic crumbled and gave off microscopic asbestos dust particles. This condition is called a friable state, and it was deadly. Tiny asbestos fibers filled the air around a brittle ACM plastic piece. They were inhaled by anyone handling them or in the vicinity where asbestos plastics were disturbed.

MJN Brief

Workers in plastic factories were also highly exposed to asbestos powder when adding raw materials to plastic resin compounds. Very few workers knew about asbestos exposure health risks. They worked without respiratory protection for years without realizing how dangerous their airborne environment was.

Second-hand asbestos fibers even contaminated plastic factory workers’ families, friends and neighbors of plastic factory workers. Asbestos particles clung to workers clothes, hair, tools and vehicles. Others unsuspectingly laundered asbestos-filled work clothing. They handled asbestos polluted lunch boxes. Workers even drove their kids to school in asbestos-laden cars.

Mesothelioma from Asbestos in Plastics

When workers inhaled airborne asbestos fibers, these microscopic particles attached to the lung lining or mesothelium. Asbestos particles couldn’t be exhaled. They remained embedded in the mesothelium and stayed there forever. Over time, asbestos fibers irritated the mesothelium and caused scar tissue buildup. It took 10 to 50 years, but eventually, the tissue turned to cancer tumors and the disease known as mesothelioma.

The plastic industry used two asbestos fiber types. One was chrysotile or white asbestos. The other was amphibole fibers that appear blue, green or brown. Both fiber types cause mesothelioma, but amphibole particles are far more dangerous. High heat plastics primarily used amphibole asbestos while low-temperature products usually contained chrysotile fibers.

Compensation for Mesothelioma Victims

Tragically, there is no cure for advanced mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos-containing plastics or any ACM. The only recourse is to sue negligent asbestos producers for compensation. That includes medical expenses, personal injury damages and lost wages. Mesothelioma victims’ families can claim on their behalf as well as file suits in wrongful death cases.