Those who appreciate the deliciously cool environment of an indoor movie theatre on a blistering hot day or the comfort of central heating during cold, damp evenings can thank Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) mechanics. It is the job of these people to keep such climate controls in working order, whether they are in public buildings or private residences.
Unfortunately, HVAC Mechanics are among those workers at risk for asbestos exposure because asbestos was used in thousands of construction materials for many decades. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of public buildings and millions of private residences where asbestos is present in the form of siding, flooring, ceiling and paint texture, joint compound and insulation. While not all of these products are friable – which is to say, capable of crumbling and creating asbestos dust – the fact is that as such products age and deteriorate, they do pose a real danger in that they are known to cause a host of health problems including asbestosis, pleural plaques, and several forms of asbestos cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Asbestos Products and Climate Control/Ventilation Systems
In general, where there’s heat, there’s asbestos. A heating system duct must be fire-resistance rated and firestopped – which is to say that any openings must be sealed off so as to prevent oxygen from feeding any potential fire or any flame from escaping into the rest of the building. Today, such firestopping may be made from ceramic and rock wool. Chances are however that if the system was constructed prior to the 1980s, there is asbestos present.
In addition, asbestos insulation was marketed by the W.R. Grace Corporation as Zonolite™ up until early 1990s. This insulation contained vermiculite which is a form of ferrous clay and quite harmless by itself. The fact is however that most of the corporation’s vermiculite came from a mine in Libby, Montana, where a great deal of asbestos was also mined. As a result, the vermiculite was extensively contaminated with asbestos fibers.
W.R. Grace – a multi-billion dollar corporation located in Maryland, and still in operation today, has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to hiding information about asbestos and evading responsibility. In addition to Zonolite, this corporation was also responsible for the manufacture and extensive marketing of Monokote™ – a type of “spray-on” insulation that was used on water pipes and heating ducts.
Asbestos is Still Legal
Although tightly regulated for most purposes, asbestos is still used legally in 3500 products in the United States. Again, there is the W.R. Grace Corporation to thank for this; back in the 1970s, Congress agreed to pass what is still known as the “Grace Rule,” which says that any product that contains 1% asbestos or less is legally “asbestos free”.
Thanks to the efforts of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), this may change starting in 2008. In 2002, the Senator attempted to put forward a bill that would have restored an EPA ban on asbestos passed in 1989 and overturned in federal court in 1991 under corporate pressure. This bill, long stalled in committee, is finally scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate in the fall of 2007. The new bill, S. 742 (the “Ban Asbestos in America Act”) has had broad support on both sides of the aisle; assuming it passes with a veto-proof majority, it will end most uses of asbestos in the U.S. right away and phase out all others within five years. In addition, it will provide more funding for the study of asbestos-related diseases.