Asbestos in Brick and Block Mortar

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Virtually all mortar found brick and cinder block buildings constructed prior to the mid-1980s contains asbestos. Adding asbestos to mortar mix increased its tensile strength tremendously.

On the eve of U.S. entrance into the World War I, a chemist wrote:

“Asbestos mortar consists of a mixture of asbestos with 10 percent of white lime. Canadian asbestos is generally used, which is composed of 80 percent of asbestos and 20 percent of serpentine. The asbestos is ground and the coarse powder used for the first rough cast, while the finer material is employed for the second top-plastering. This mortar is highly fire-resisting and waterproof, is only half as heavy as cement mortar, and tough enough to admit of nails being driven in without breaking it.”

Silent Killer

Since the “Canadian asbestos” to which he was referring was the chrysotile variety, which is derived from serpentine rock, one can see that the mortar resulting from this mixture was probably closer to 90 to 95 percent asbestos. It is unsurprising, then, that brick layers and those in the masonry trades are among those at highest risk for developing asbestos-related diseases.

Chrysotile asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral found in California , Montana , New England , and Quebec (where it is still heavily mined), is responsible for the disease known as asbestosis. Ironically, this disease killed two of the asbestos industry’s founding figures: H.W. Johns, founder of the company that later became Johns-Manville, and Edward Alley, builder of the asbestos mines of Libby, Montana who ultimately owned and operated by one of the most infamous names in the history of asbestos, W.R. Grace & Company.

When chrysotile fibers are inhaled into the lungs, they cause micro-abrasions on the inner surfaces of the alveoli, or air sacs. This, in turn, causes the build-up of scar tissue; as scar tissue grows, air capacity diminishes. In essence, the person slowly suffocates.

Asbestosis, like mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers, is incurable. However, the disease is non-malignant, and by removing the sufferer from the asbestos-containing environment, asbestosis will stop progressing.

Since removal is not usually a practical solution, encapsulation (sealing) may be the only alternative. Asbestos-containing mortar, if crumbling, presents a serious and immediate health hazard that should be dealt with by trained, licensed asbestos contractors.

Learn more about asbestos and 6 Asbestos Advertisements You Won’t Believe.