One of the great ironies of the entire asbestos issue is that a substance that was meant to protect workers from sudden injury and/or death ultimately causes slow sickness and death. Welding blankets are a case in point.
Welding blankets, gloves and aprons were made from asbestos cloth and/or were lined with asbestos to protect laborers working with high temperature open flame. Burns are perhaps the most painful type of injury and the one from which a full recovery is a long and difficult process. Over time however, these protective garments were prone to normal wear and tear. Rips in the fabric or at the seams would release millions of microscopic fibers into the air. This is why welders are among those at high risk for developing mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer.
To be sure, these asbestos-lined garments were only part of the problem for these workers. Furnace rooms, automobile factories, shipyards and steel mills are all known for high rates of asbestos disease.
The bad news is that asbestos welding blankets and other similar products continue to be manufactured and used in China where U.S. corporations have shipped virtually the entire manufacturing infrastructure of the nation. According to ASPEC, a watchdog organization based in Hong Kong, the continued use of asbestos cloth and welding blankets has resulted in contamination of cargo ships as well as steel coils and other pressed-metal products exposed during the manufacturing process. According to the ASPEC report, asbestos fibers adhere to the surfaces of the metal, contaminating the holds of cargo ships during the voyage, creating additional hazards for those working as longshoremen at U.S. ports.
There are welding blankets that now use asbestos substitutes, although initially, many of these were not necessarily a change for the better. A 1987 report published by the U.S. Department of Energy sites incidents of workers passing out from toxic fumes released by welding blankets heated during routine flame-cutting operations. Today, the most effective and safest welding blankets are those made from silica cloth, which tend to release minimal amounts of toxic materials over time.