Welding became the industry standard for metal work leaving blacksmiths relegated as a cottage craft. Though electric arc welding was safer than hand-forged blacksmithing, it had its health hazards. That’s because, until the 1980s, most welding rods contained dangerous asbestos fibers.
Welding rods are the disposable or consumable electrodes used in arc welding. The electric arc is one welding form. Other welding processes like brazing with oxygen-acetylene heat and MIG welding also used rods, but electric arc welding was by far the biggest consumer of asbestos rods. Billions of asbestos electrodes were melted over an eighty year period until the health risks from asbestos exposure became widely known.
In the 1980s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) enacted a total ban on American asbestos products. That included phasing out welding rods containing asbestos. Although production of new rods stopped, there were still millions of asbestos welding rods on supply shelves. They continued selling far into the twenty-first century.
Asbestos Materials in Welding Rods
Electric arc welding generated resistance in welding rods or electrode. This process caused a short or an arc to form where the rod contacted the joint. The electrodes melted and fused or glued the joint leaving a metal seam which was stronger than the two original components. Many welders used dozens of welding rods during a busy day, exposing them to electrode smoke and dust.
Starting around 1900, welding rod manufacturers began adding asbestos fibers into welding rods. Electrodes have two parts. One is the core that melted and formed new metal. The other is the rod’s outer coating which acted as a flux during the weld. Flux helped to prevent the rod from sticking and allowed the molten metal to flow correctly. Manufacturers added asbestos fibers to both the cores and the coatings because it significantly improved welding rod performance.
Welding rod manufacturers produced four main types of electrodes. Each served a particular purpose and, at one time, all contained between 5 and 30 percent asbestos materials.
The common welding rods were:
- 6010: These were the most common rods. They were all-purpose and contained the most substantial amount of asbestos fibers.
- 7018: These were specialized electrodes with low hydrogen contents, made for moist areas.
- 308L: These were stainless steel rods. Most had very little asbestos content.
- 24AC/DC: These rods welded two different metal types. They contained high amounts of a particularly dangerous asbestos fiber called crocidolite.
Most welding rods with asbestos-containing materials (ACM) used fibers from the amphibole asbestos group. Crocidolite was an amphibole mineral fiber. It was also called blue asbestos, and its properties gave it high electrical resistance which was perfect for welding. Amphibole asbestos is far more dangerous to human health than the other asbestos group known as chrysotile fibers.
Welding Rods and Asbestos Exposure
Mesothelioma Justice Network Brief
Welders were among the highest risk group for suffering asbestos exposure. When a welder struck a bead or actively welded, smoke and dust from the welding rod core and coating became airborne. Millions of microscopic asbestos fibers filled the welding shop. Welders regularly inhaled asbestos fibers, and so did anyone in their vicinity.
Welders also experienced asbestos exposure when they ground fresh welds to smooth them. Grinding dust was full of asbestos particles left from the rods. And to make matters worse, welders’ protective gloves, aprons and masks were made of asbestos fibers.
When welders inhaled asbestos fibers, the tiny particles stuck to their lung lining or mesothelium. Asbestos fibers permanently stayed in the mesothelium. Over time, scar tissue formed that eventually become cancerous. That disease is called mesothelioma, and it’s fatal in advanced stages.
Compensation for Mesothelioma Victims
It takes from 10 to 50 years for mesothelioma to develop. For decades negligent welding rod manufacturers and suppliers knew that rods with ACM posed health risks to their consumers. Now they’re being held accountable and forced to compensate mesothelioma victims. That includes money for lost income, medical costs and personal injury damage.