You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would disagree that fireproofing is a good thing, which is why it is understandable that industries and the military were so ready to embrace asbestos so wholeheartedly. The dramatic rise in asbestos-related diseases in the U.S. and around the world–particularly mesothelioma-however, raises the question as to whether the cure was as bad as the disease. What are the alternatives? The answer to that question depends a great deal upon the specific application. Asbestos was largely a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. However, the areas in which asbestos was extensively used–manufacturing, construction, automotive repair, and ship and boat construction–all pose different types of challenges when it comes to safety.
This is one reason that the switch to asbestos alternatives has been relatively slow. For example, ceramics, long used on spacecraft re-entry shields, have been very successful when applied to automotive brake pads. However, when required to cover a large area–such as a fireproof door on a sea-going vessel–the use of ceramics is quite impractical, and expensive. Steel wool and fibers are other alternatives that have been successfully employed in brake pads and other applications. Today’s fire suits, employed by firefighters and professional racing drivers, are now made with aluminized glass fiber fabric. The other problem is the “fibers.” Non-asbestos fibrous materials are still fibrous and liable to become airborne and ingested or inhaled. While the effects of non-asbestos fibers have yet to be closely studied, there are indications that such fibers do interact with living tissues in ways that may be carcinogenic.
The World Health Organization has classified many of these glass and rockwool fibers as possible health hazards if inhaled or ingested. Other substitutes for asbestos include vegetable fibers in asphalt, slate, aluminum, recycled polypropylene and high-density polyethylene reinforced with crushed stone (marketed as Worldroof), cellulose fibers, gypsum, brick, clay and iron and steel. Although safer than asbestos, these kinds of substitutes are substantially higher in cost. However, compared to the financial and social costs of mesothelioma, they are a bargain.