Sheetrock and Asbestos Exposure

Summary

Sheetrock is one of the most common building products used in the construction industry. Gypsum wallboard, or drywall, has been used across the building spectrum in residential, commercial and industrial building projects for over seventy years.

American sheet rockers hung and taped millions of square feet of sheetrock every year for decades. Modern sheetrock board, tape and joint compounds are safe to work with, but before the 1980s, almost all sheetrock products used in the United States contained dangerous amounts of asbestos.

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

Sheetrock finishing took multiple stages with a drying time between each coat. Three to four layers of joint compound are necessary for a smooth, seamless surface ready for paint or wallpaper. Each coat required sanding, and that released clouds of fine particles into the air. Every sheetrock worker, whether cutting and hanging board or sanding seams, experienced constant exposure to the dust.

Asbestos Use in Sheetrock Products

Sheetrock became a favorite building product during the Second World War. The combination of wartime labor shortage and need for speed in construction projects proved sheetrock 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 sheetrock. Lath and plaster disappeared, and sheetrock has been the leading interior wall finish system ever since.

MJN Brief

Asbestos found its way into sheetrock products in the 1940s. Asbestos was thought to be the perfect additive to gypsum wallboard, tape and joint compound. Asbestos blended with gypsum formed a material called Transite. This specific word is a brand name, but over time it became so familiar that most sheetrock filling and coating was called Transite.

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

  • Sheetrock products were stable and straightforward to use.
  • Asbestos lightened the overall weight of sheetrock panels, making them easier to hang.
  • Sheetrock with asbestos filling had better insulation or R-value.
  • Asbestos was a naturally fireproof material.
  • Asbestos materials were flexible and durable.
  • Asbestos sheetrock had better acoustical properties than plain gypsum board.

By the 1960s, dangers of airborne asbestos exposure became known. No industry used more asbestos-containing materials (ACM) than sheetrock hangers and tapers. Their entire work environment clouded with asbestos dust, and they worked in this polluted atmosphere for years. Many sheetrock workers did not have dust masks, and this was long before HEPA filters.

Asbestos was removed from sheetrock 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 sheetrock.

Health Risks from Sheetrock Asbestos Exposure

Once asbestos-containing sheetrock was finished and sealed, there was 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 also millions of American homes built during that thirty-year period full of asbestos sheetrock. Many have, are, or will be undergoing renovations, which will disturb old asbestos sheetrock products.

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 and can take half a century to develop.

Compensation for Mesothelioma Caused by Sheetrock 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 sheetrock 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.