Like many other construction products used throughout the 1900s, drywall taping compounds contained asbestos. Drywall taping compounds became widely used after gypsum board or sheetrock gained popularity over plastering for finishing walls in both commercial and residential construction. Taping compounds are used to close the gap and eliminate any seams formed where the drywall sheets butt together.
Taping compounds containing asbestos were particularly dangerous for construction workers because of the process involved in using these products. On the sheetrock seams, a tape is first applied then a compound plaster is smoothed over the tape. After it dries, the compound is sanded to a smooth finish. The taping compound is a dry mineral mixture which is mixed with water at the construction site. The dry materials contain asbestos, and would enter the air in a dust cloud when mixed to the right consistency. Then again when the material was dry and sanded on the wall boards, the toxic dust would enter the air.
Airborne asbestos has been linked to serious illness such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. Asbestos fibers in the air enter the respiratory or digestive tract of people creating a significant health risk. The illness may not manifest for many years. The symptoms of asbestos related illness include shortness of breath, coughing chest pain and bloody sputum. Because the health risks involved in working with asbestos products was so great, there are now many regulations that limit exposure for construction workers through safety precautions and manufacturing changes. Drywall compounds today contain less than 1% asbestos and are considered asbestos-free.
Asbestos-containing taping compounds exist in many buildings today, and when doing remodeling or demolition extreme caution should be used to minimize your health risks. At a minimum it is important to wear protective masks to keep from inhaling dust containing asbestos fibers. When doing any demolition or remodeling on drywall installed before the 1980s, it would be prudent to assume that asbestos fibers were present in either the taping compounds or the drywall itself. Use all safety precautions necessary or hire an asbestosabatement contractor.