After the true dangers of asbestos were discovered, mineral wool became a common replacement, but new research suggests that mineral wool health risks might be just as deadly.
The European Union (EU) recently explored this topic during their “Health and Safety at Work Week” campaign, which highlighted how construction workers are at risk of cancer and lung diseases due to the mineral wool health risks when inhaled.
The EU banned the use of asbestos in 2005, and mineral wool quickly became a popular replacement in insulation and furnace lining. Mineral wool shares many of the same desirable qualities as asbestos, including its heatproof and water resistance, but was considered a safe alternative until the recent concerns came to light.
Unfortunately, mineral wool may not have ever been safe.
Flawed Research Declassified Mineral Wool As Carcinogen
Mineral wool was previously classified as a carcinogen, recognized for its potential to cause cancer. But in 2002, a series of research conducted in 1996 and 2000-2002 managed to declassify the status for a newer form of mineral wool. With the health concerns aside, mineral wool suddenly became a common replacement for asbestos products of the past.
Unfortunately, the research was flawed. Scientists weren’t testing the new mineral wool in the same form it was being purchased, sold or used. Instead, the mineral wool researched was missing the oil or the binder, which may play a critical role in the carcinogenicity of mineral wool.
Experts feel the research needs to be thrown out and completely redone to determine whether the mineral wool used today is dangerous. They are calling, instead, for new research to occur. But no further studies are confirmed at this time.
Similarity Between Mineral Wool and Asbestos
Mineral wool is similar to asbestos in that its comprised of very hard fibers the body has no mechanism for removing. In asbestos, these fibers can trigger mutations in nearby cells that cause mesothelioma.
While it’s now unclear whether today’s mineral wool can cause similar mutations to occur, it’s obvious that mineral wool—derived from minerals and metal oxides in the earth and spun into thin fibers—was never intended to be consumed by people.
Mineral Wool Health Risks
Past research has linked several diseases with the inhalation or ingestion of some forms of mineral wool. Based on this research, mineral wool health risks include:
Nonmalignant respiratory disease
These conditions can reduce lung capacity, making it much harder to breathe and function, and they can result in death.
“The effects of the fibers of glass wool and stone wool can be compared to those of asbestos. In the past, we did not know asbestos was very dangerous. The results of the effects of fibers in glass wool and mineral wool are only being seen right now, so we must deal with it carefully,” said Dr. Marjolein Drent, professor of interstitial lung diseases at Maastricht University.
And Dr. Drent is far from alone in this opinion. Experts across the globe are concerned that mineral wool is the world’s next asbestos catastrophe.
How To Protect Yourself From Mineral Wool
The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) treats mineral wool like a hazard and still maintains the recommendations that were put into place in 2000 before mineral wool was determined “safe.”
According to NIOSH, workers should protect themselves by wearing:
NIOSH also tells workers not to eat, drink, or smoke anywhere near a work site with mineral wool, and to prevent dust from dispersing.
Interestingly, even the organizations that claim mineral wool is safe often recommend similar precautions. For example, the European Insulation Manufacturers Associations (EUIMA) recommends protective clothing, eye protection, and respiratory masks because mineral wool can be “itchy.”
The EUIMA website states, “Mineral wool products may cause temporary skin itching due to the well-known mechanical effect of fibers of coarse fibers. Mineral wool fibers are not classified as skin irritant (Regulation (EC) No 790/2009). Nevertheless, Eurima members are staying ahead of the game by developing pictorial packaging communication standards to ensure that the installation is safe, clean and conforms to local regulations, the use of which is monitored by Eurima on a yearly basis.”
Regardless of whether workers are preventing cancer or itchy skin, one thing is clear: everyone needs protection when working with mineral wool.