How Was Asbestos Used in Electrical Panels and Wiring?
From the earliest days of commercial electricity, manufacturers used asbestos in various components for electrical panels. Asbestos protected building tenants from fire and electrocution but also exposed electricians and other workers to severe health risks.
The electricity for a building is received and distributed through a device called an electrical panel or distribution box. Electrical current produces heat, and if not grounded properly, it can arc and cause a fire or electrocution injury. In the early 1900s, as electricity became popular in the United States, manufacturers sought materials that could make electrical supply and distribution systems safer.
Asbestos became a favored solution thanks to the fibrous mineral’s resistance to heat and electricity, low cost and the ease with which manufacturers could mix it into cement, millboard, plastic, cloth and paper. Though company executives knew of the harmful effects of inhaling asbestos dust as far back as the 1930s and 1940s, the link between asbestos exposure and diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, was not made public until the 1970s and 1980s.
Types of Asbestos Electrical Panel and Wiring Products
Ebonized Asbestos Panels
“Asbestos lumber” was a type of easily workable asbestos-containing cement marketed as a fireproof alternative to wood boards. “Ebonized” asbestos lumber was treated with a special compound to make it resistant to moisture as well.
Asbestos Cement Electrical Shielding
Simple sheets of asbestos cement could be placed in between electrical components as shielding. Asbestos cement could also be formed into arc chutes that completely enclosed switch equipment.
Molded Asbestos Cement Bases
Manufacturers often shaped asbestos cement to fit specific electrical components. This removed the need to install extra parts for shielding.
Asbestos Electrical Paper
Pieces of asbestos insulation paper, also known as flash guards, were used to line the inside of many electrical boxes. Asbestos paper products are highly vulnerable to wear and tear, creating a higher asbestos exposure risk.
Asbestos Wire Insulation
Asbestos was used to fireproof and insulate individual wires. Fraying asbestos wiring can easily release dangerous asbestos fibers.
Asbestos Cable Wrap
Like pipes, thick electrical cables were sometimes wrapped in asbestos paper or cloth, which can degrade and crumble over time. Many electrical components were also made of molded asbestos plastic.
Companies Connected to Asbestos in Electrical Panels and Wiring
Popular asbestos-containing electrical panel and wire insulation brands include:
Other manufacturers of these products include:
- Allen Bradley
- Cutler Hammer
- Power Magnetics
- Quin-T Corporation
- Square D
- Westinghouse Electric
Diseases Asbestos in Electrical Panels and Wiring Can Cause
In factories that produced asbestos panel compounds, workers added raw asbestos fibers to tar, cement, millboard and other materials, creating high levels of toxic dust in the air. The amount of asbestos in mixtures varied. The finished products pose a threat to construction workers, electricians, homeowners and demolition crews, because sawing, drilling, sanding or breaking electrical panels can release asbestos fibers.
Simply replacing a blown fuse on an older electrical supply system can put electricians and those in other occupations in contact with crumbling asbestos materials. Do-it-yourselfers working on electrical panels in older homes also face the risk of exposure.
Microscopic asbestos dust has no scent, and it can easily contaminate workers’ clothing and lodge in people’s lungs permanently, causing cellular damage over time. A 2022 health report noted that asbestos electrical tapes and resin could also produce dust.
Asbestos in electrical wiring and panels is known to cause the following diseases:
- Lung cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Pleural plaques, pleuritis and other benign pleural diseases
If you’ve been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease it is important to get medical advice from a doctor who specializes in your diagnosis. Seeking treatment from an expert may improve your chances of long-term survival.
Compensation for Exposure to Asbestos in Electrical Panels and Wiring
Electricians and other tradesmen have filed many legal claims against asbestos electrical panel manufacturers after developing serious illnesses such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. Both Westinghouse and General Electric have lost many workers’ compensation cases based on occupational asbestos exposure, and victims have received compensation through personal injury lawsuits and wrongful death lawsuits as well.
- Albert Bertini worked as an electrician for the U.S. Navy in the 1960s and 1970s. He used asbestos-containing electrical parts made by Gould Electronics and Nikko Materials USA Inc. Bertini developed mesothelioma and filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers in 2017. Court records indicate a trial date is set for Feb. 10, 2021.
- In 2003, a San Francisco jury awarded almost $3 million to Philip Hoeffer, a retired electrician who developed pleural mesothelioma. Hoeffer was exposed to asbestos while installing, repairing and removing electrical panels during his U.S. Navy service and his civilian career. The defendant in the case was Rockwell Automation, the successor company to Allen-Bradley. The trial award represents only part of the compensation Hoeffer received because the other companies in the lawsuit settled with him out of court.
In many cases, compensation is available through special trust funds for asbestos-related claims. Johns Manville set up the first asbestos personal injury settlement trust in 1988, setting a precedent in bankruptcy law many other former asbestos companies have followed in the years since.
An experienced mesothelioma attorney can review your case to determine whether you qualify to file a lawsuit and multiple trust fund claims. Other forms of compensation include VA claims, workers’ compensation, Social Security Disability, and treatment and travel grants.
Abatement and History of Asbestos in Electrical Panels and Wiring
Typical asbestos abatement procedures require wetting dangerous areas to prevent fibers from becoming airborne, but this may not be an option with electrical systems. To prevent electrical hazards from supply systems, licensed abatement workers must either use a dry technique with high-efficiency particulate air ventilation or ensure connectors are disconnected or shut off.
Dry asbestos abatement procedures in facilities require special approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so it is important to hire a licensed professional to abate asbestos electrical panels. This regulation does not apply to homes and residences with four or fewer dwellings in the structure, but it does apply to any institutional, commercial, industrial and public building, including residential buildings with five or more dwellings.
After successful personal injury lawsuits in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the deadly consequences of asbestos exposure, electrical panel manufacturers began to replace the asbestos in their products with substitutes such as gypsum, calcium silicate, expanded perlite, cellulose and polystyrene.
By the 1940s, when electricity had found its way into most American towns and cities, many businesses, such as the Johns Manville Corporation, had already made a fortune off asbestos-containing cement and thermal insulation. Johns Manville incorporated asbestos into electrical panels and other electrical parts. In addition to Johns Manville, the growing electrical insulation industry included other companies that used asbestos such as Westinghouse Electric and Detroit Fuse and Manufacturing Company.