For most of the twentieth century, asbestos was one of the most widely used industrial materials in the world. Modern consumption and production of asbestos goes back to the late 1800s and the start of the Industrial Revolution. At the peak of world-wide asbestos consumption in the 1970s, more than 3,000 types of asbestos products could be found in industrialized countries. As a result, millions of people have been exposed to asbestos, increasing their risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos was listed as an ingredient or component in thousands of patent applications filed in the U.S. and elsewhere. Various asbestos and asbestos-containing products were advertised in magazines and newspapers, on the radio and in television commercials. Asbestos was sold in catalogs to all types of industries as well as to individuals, including the Sears catalog. Its use was so widespread and common that there was even a comic book character known as “Asbestos Man.”
In many ways, asbestos was an ideal industrial material because it was easily available, very inexpensive, extremely versatile, strong and durable. Unfortunately, asbestos is also highly toxic and a known carcinogen. Although many companies were well-aware of the hazards of asbestos as early as the 1930s, the asbestos industry kept those dangers hidden from the public. Asbestos was simply too profitable to give up. The use of asbestos in the US has declined sharply from its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it has never been banned completely.
Thermal Insulation and Fireproofing
Asbestos is perhaps best known for its resistance to heat and flame. Chrysotile, or white asbestos fiber, was woven into textiles and used for fireproofing in everything from welding gloves to theater curtains. Asbestos was also used as a spray-on fire- and sound-proofing material in both residential and commercial applications. Often, amosite or brown asbestos was included as binding and filler material for thermal pipecovering, block and cement or mud insulation to add strength and thermal protection. Amosite was also woven into blankets and sewn into pads for use as removable insulation on various types of machinery, including turbines and generators.
Asbestos fibers were also incorporated into molded plastic materials such as Bakelite. Asbestos provided the strength and low conductivity needed for electrical applications. Asbestos paper was an excellent electrical insulator in generators and transformers. Wires with asbestos wrapping or sheaths offered fire protection aboard U.S. Navy ships and private merchant vessels.
Gaskets, Packing, and Friction Products
Many gasket and packing materials contained asbestos, especially for use in high pressure or temperature pumps and valves. Crocidolite was the preferred material for use with or around acids and solvents because of its high resistance to chemicals. Asbestos gaskets were widely used in the automotive industry, especially in automobile, truck, tractor, railroad and heavy equipment engines. Friction products such as brake shoes and clutch pads in automobiles, cranes and elevators also used asbestos to withstand the intense heat associated with the operation of these kinds of equipment.
Asbestos as a Strengthening Agent
In addition, the high tensile strength of asbestos made it an ideal binder for drywall, joint compound, paints, coatings, mastics and adhesives. Crocidolite or blue asbestos fibers were also mixed with cement to produce strong and rigid transite pipe, board, roofing and siding material. Asbestos cement products used enormous amounts of asbestos as a reinforcing agent. Cutting, sawing, mixing and installing these products contaminated the air at the job sites and exposed workers as well as bystanders to the toxic material. Asbestos was also used as an extremely effective filtering medium.
Household and Other Products
Many household and other products such as ovens, irons and toasters, laboratory equipment, jewelry manufacturing and repair products, dental moldings, grinding wheels, welding gloves and even some children’s toys contained asbestos at certain points. Sometimes people diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illness cannot recall being exposed to asbestos. However, a careful and thorough investigation by an experienced law firm such as Galiher DeRobertis & Waxman may discover a hidden source of asbestos exposure in these types of products.
U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 02-149 “Asbestos: Geology, Mineralogy, Mining, and Uses” by Robert L. Virta.