Products and Materials Containing Asbestos
American industries used many types of asbestos products for construction, manufacturing and chemical refining from the late 1800s through the 1980s. Regulations enacted from the 1970s through the 1990s limited the use of asbestos, but did not fully ban it, and lawsuits discouraged companies from continuing to use the mineral. Asbestos products are still commonly used in nations such as Russia, China, India and Mexico.
Many Americans wonder what products contain asbestos today. According to a 2020 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, chrysotile asbestos is imported into the U.S. solely to make asbestos diaphragms for the chloralkali industry. The report found unreasonable asbestos exposure risk for workers who handle oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes, linings and other vehicle friction products, sheet gaskets used in chemical production facilities and gaskets used in other industries. They also found a risk to consumers handling gaskets and aftermarket auto brakes and linings. Asbestos has been recently detected in contaminated talc products, including baby powder and children’s makeup.
Some old asbestos materials remain in place, including attic insulation or floor tiles in older homes. A few types of asbestos products remain in active use, such as old asbestos pipes used for plumbing and laboratory equipment at universities around the country.
Common Industrial and Commercial Asbestos-Containing Products
Industrial and commercial asbestos products were used by many different types of trade workers in a variety of industries, including power generation, oil and gas, construction, automotive repair, plumbing, electricity and chemical production.
Construction workers were exposed when building homes, plumbers are exposed to asbestos pipes and insulation, electricians are exposed while repairing electrical panels and other equipment, and auto mechanics are exposed when changing brakes and clutches. Do-it-yourselfers who perform repairs on older homes and home auto mechanics handling aftermarket brake pads and clutch linings are also at risk of asbestos exposure.
Some of the most common asbestos products:
Brake pads, clutches, hood liners, gaskets and valves contained asbestos.
Flooring, ceiling and roofing tiles were commonly made with asbestos. The adhesive used to lay down flooring tiles has also been a source of exposure.
Asbestos-containing cement was used in building materials because the fibers provided strength without adding much weight. Its insulating and fire-resistant properties also made the mineral an ideal substance to add to cement.
Asbestos was used in the production of cloths and garments for its resistance to heat and corrosive elements. Some of the most common textiles included blankets, firefighter suits and rope.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2020 risk evaluation found an unreasonable risk to the health of chloralkai workers who handle raw asbestos to make diaphragms. The asbestos diaphragms work as a filter to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. Asbestos reportedly does not end up in the final products, so the agency did not find a threat to consumers.
In February 2021, the U.S. Geological Survey reported a 30% increase in raw chrysotile asbestos importation for the previous year to support the chloralkai industry.
The use of asbestos-containing products stretched across a number of industries. Most of the products could be categorized as either construction or automotive materials.
Industrial and Commercial Asbestos Products
Common Home and Consumer Asbestos-Containing Products
Consumers, homeowners and do-it-yourselfers have been exposed to asbestos in consumer goods and home building materials. Current DIY projects in older homes present an exposure risk to homeowners today. Do-it-yourselfers who installed their own insulation and flooring before the 1990s faced a high risk of dangerous asbestos exposure.
Consumers of makeup are at risk of exposure to asbestos through contaminated talc products. Unfortunately, asbestos has been detected in children’s makeup in recent years. It has also appeared in children’s toys, including crayons, clay and a fingerprint kit.
- Cigarette filters
- Ashtray coasters
- Wicking for gas ranges
- Fake snow
- Hair dryers
- Talcum powder
- Zonolite insulation
What Is Asbestos Used For?
Asbestos is primarily used for its fireproofing ability. Until the 1800s, people mainly used asbestos to make fireproof cloth in small amounts. Then, during the Industrial Revolution, great demand arose for a material that could insulate steam engines. At the same time, the technology was developed to easily mine asbestos and combine it with other materials.
During the 20th century, demand for asbestos products was propelled further by the shipbuilding efforts of World War II and the postwar building boom. Many veterans were exposed to asbestos during both their military service and their civilian careers.
By the 1970s, lawsuits were holding asbestos manufacturers liable for the diseases their products caused. Workers who developed mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis were suing for compensation to cover medical costs and lost wages. Unfortunately, doctors are still searching for a cure for every type of asbestos-related disease.
Why Was Asbestos Used in Products and Materials?
Asbestos has unique chemical and physical properties that make it strong and resistant to heat and chemical reaction. Its chemical composition makes it less likely to react with other compounds, and the space between its fibers reduces conduction of heat, making it resistant to fire.
- Abundant: Asbestos occurs naturally in mineral deposits around the world.
- Fibrous: Asbestos ore can be pulled apart into a wooly consistency and then worked like any other type of fiber.
- Durable: Asbestos is resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion.
- Carcinogenic: Microscopic asbestos fibers are not easily broken down by the human body once they are inhaled. Over many years, lodged asbestos fibers can cause chronic inflammation, buildup of scar tissue and cancer.
Are Asbestos-Containing Products Banned?
Currently, several asbestos products are banned in the U.S. through the Clean Air Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act and regulations enacted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, known as the EPA.
The EPA is reviewing legacy uses of asbestos to assess current risk to workers and the general public. It conducted a review of current asbestos uses and issued a final rule in 2019 prohibiting new asbestos products from entering the market without a review. This applies to once-common products such as asbestos plastic, asbestos cement and vinyl asbestos tile.
The agency attempted to issue a ban on all asbestos products in 1989, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the ban in 1991 under pressure from industry lobbyists. The EPA was able to ban six asbestos products at the time, and the ruling did not reverse previously banned asbestos materials. Because of this, certain asbestos-containing products, such as gaskets and brake pads, are still sold in America.
By law, these products are not required to carry a warning label if they are less than 1% asbestos or if they will not release asbestos fibers during any reasonably foreseeable use. Though asbestos remains legal in the U.S., regulatory organizations control its use and manage its removal from older buildings.
Asbestos Products Currently Banned in the US
- Asbestos flooring felt
- Asbestos paper products, including corrugated, commercial and specialty paper
- Friable asbestos pipe and block insulation
- Spray-on coatings containing more than 1% asbestos
- Asbestos wall compound
- Asbestos fireplace decorations
- Asbestos filters for pharmaceutical manufacturing
- New uses of asbestos from Aug. 25, 1989, forward
Common Questions About Asbestos Products
- Where are asbestos products commonly found?
Asbestos in homes is commonly present in the following products:
- Roof shingles
- Floor tiles
Examples of materials that contain asbestos in schools include:
- Ceiling tiles
- Ductwork for heating and cooling systems
- Is asbestos still used in products?
Unfortunately, some asbestos-containing materials, such as brake pads and gaskets, are still being sold in the United States. Manufacturers are not required to warn consumers of asbestos content if the product contains less than 1% asbestos.
- What products are made from asbestos?
Common sources of asbestos in home goods include:
- Appliances such as stoves, dryers and coffee pots
- Materials such as fabric and paper products
Examples of talc products containing asbestos in makeup and toys are:
- Amateur crime lab kits
- Children’s makeup products
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