Written By: Michelle Whitmer,
Last modified: June 7, 2021
Quick Facts
  • Years Produced:
    1907 - Today
  • Places Used:
    Construction materials, textiles, firefighting, automobiles, planes, aerospace
  • Toxicity:
    High
  • Asbestos Use Banned:
    Partial; spray-on asbestos fireproofing is banned
  • Friable:
    Yes

Asbestos in Fire-Resistant Materials

Asbestos works well as a fire-resistant material because of its chemical properties. It is nonflammable and noncombustible and has a melting point of around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Asbestos consists of lightweight fibers that are stronger than cotton, rayon or nylon. The fibers are also flexible enough to be woven with other fibers, mixed and sprayed with cement or mixed with other materials.

Asbestos was an inexpensive additive used to create a range of affordable, fire-resistant products, including building materials such as roofing shingles, wallboard, concrete, insulation and coatings. It was woven into textiles to make fire-resistant fabrics and cloth used by firefighters and industrial workers, and it was added into consumer goods such as ironing board covers and appliances.

While American companies no longer make these materials with asbestos, only one asbestos fireproofing product is banned in the U.S.: spray-on asbestos fireproofing. It was banned in 1970 through the passage of the Clean Air Act. Imported roofing and flooring materials from countries such as China and India may contain asbestos.

Asbestos and Firefighter Gear

Black and white photo of Navy firefighters in asbestos suits

In addition to encountering asbestos products in burning buildings, firefighters experienced direct exposure to asbestos through the clothes they wore and the gear they used to fight fires.

As a result, firefighters are among the most at-risk occupations for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Asbestos was added to the following firefighting gear:

  • Suits
  • Helmets
  • Gloves
  • Pumps
  • Boots

Asbestos in Consumer Goods and Building Materials

sign describing how to use an asbestos theater curtain

Consumers and homeowners should know that asbestos was used in consumer goods and home building materials to prevent fires.

Asbestos was also used in many different tools and machinery that operated at hot temperatures in commercial or industrial settings.

Asbestos has been found in the following consumer goods and building materials:

the box for an asbestos ironing board cover
  • Consumer Goods: Household textiles such as oven mitts and ironing board covers; appliances such as toasters and ovens; and other items such as purses, wallets and mattresses.
  • Theaters: Curtains in theaters were made with asbestos to reduce damage from fires.
  • Home Building Materials: Thousands of building materials were made with asbestos, including materials used in flooring, walling, ceilings, insulation, roofing and siding.
  • Commercial and Industrial Construction Materials: In addition to residential building materials, commercial and industrial materials contained considerable amounts of asbestos. These included insulation and mechanical equipment that operated at high temperatures such as pipes, boilers, hot pots, furnaces and machinery.

Asbestos and the World Trade Center

Spray-on asbestos fireproofing was used in the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. As a result, asbestos dust was released into the air following the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

According to a 2016 health study conducted by the World Trade Center Health Registry, following the collapse more than 352 people have developed asbestosis, an additional 444 people have developed pulmonary fibrosis and 16% have been diagnosed with cancer. At least two people exposed to 9/11 dust have died from mesothelioma.

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Fireproofing Products and Asbestos-Related Diseases

The asbestos content in fireproofing products varies from product to product. For example, ceiling tiles contain on average 10% asbestos, while insulating boards could contain up to 40% asbestos. Textiles developed for fireproofing purposes could be made of as much as 100% asbestos.

Because of the prevalence of asbestos fireproofing products, many different occupations were exposed to asbestos. Construction workers and firefighters are particularly at risk of exposure to high concentrations of asbestos. When buildings are renovated, demolished or affected by fire, products that contain asbestos are easily damaged.

Spray-on asbestos fireproofing was a particularly dangerous material. When it was first applied, it was a wet, foam-like material. As it dried out, it became friable. Friable means that the material crumbles easily. As spray-on asbestos fireproofing ages it becomes even more friable, often to the point where even the slightest disturbance will cause dangerous asbestos exposure. Brands of spray-on asbestos fireproofing include Monokote, Limpet, Cafco and Spraycraft.

Compensation and Asbestos Fire Prevention Materials

Companies that manufactured asbestos fireproofing products are held liable for the diseases their products cause because they were aware that asbestos leads to adverse health effects. Since the 1970s, U.S. courts have required these companies to pay for the medical costs, lost wages and pain and suffering caused by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

  • Arthur Shanahan worked as a carpenter from 1982 to 2016 in Manhattan. In 1986, he worked at the World Trade Center removing spray-on asbestos fireproofing with a claw hammer, which produced asbestos dust that he inhaled. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016 and died of the disease in 2018. Before his death, he filed a lawsuit in 2017 against Mario & DiBono Plastering Co. Inc., which installed the asbestos product. In May 2020, a New York state judge dismissed Mario & DiBono’s request to be removed from the lawsuit, allowing the suit to continue through the court system. No judgement has been published.
  • John Lydon worked as a pipefitter union manager and was exposed to a spray-on asbestos fireproofing product known as Limpet in the 1960s. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died of the disease in 2010. In 2014, a Massachusetts federal court jury found the manufacturer of Limpet, T&N Ltd., responsible for his death and ordered the company to pay his estate $9.3 million.
  • Carroll Morrow worked as a plant inspector at Western Electric, where Cafco and Spraycraft fireproofing sprays were used from 1950 to 1965. Morrow developed mesothelioma from asbestos exposure and died before his trial concluded. Multiple manufacturers were held responsible, including U.S. Mineral. In 1994, Morrow’s wife received $14 million for compensatory damages, personal injuries and injury to the marital relationship.
  • Timothy Waters worked as a tile setter from the 1950s to the 1980s. Waters did jobs in close quarters with plasterers spraying fireproofing, specifically using W.R. Grace’s Monokote. Years later, in 1986, Waters was diagnosed with asbestosis. At trial, W.R. Grace was held responsible for $283,392 in damages.
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Abatement and History of Asbestos Fireproofing Materials

Abatement of asbestos fireproofing materials should always be done by licensed professionals. Many asbestos fireproofing materials are considered Class I by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is the most dangerous class of asbestos-containing products.

Examples of Class I asbestos materials include:

  • Spray-on fireproofing
  • Wrap insulation used around pipes, boilers and ductwork
  • Surfacing materials such as plaster and acoustical materials applied to walls and ceilings

It is also important to hire a licensed professional if you suspect your home contains asbestos in building materials. Removing these materials could generate asbestos dust and result in unnecessary exposure among family members.

If you find old consumer goods that may contain asbestos, call your local department of environmental quality to inquire about proper disposal in your area. Certain landfills are equipped to take asbestos waste, and you need to follow proper bagging and disposal procedures. If the product appears damaged, hire a licensed professional to handle and dispose of it properly.

The use of asbestos in fireproof materials and products continued to increase until the early 1970s, when several studies linking the mineral to lung cancer and mesothelioma were published. These studies led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to restrict the use of asbestos. Federal legislation also prevented the production of spray-on asbestos fireproofing.

Quick Fact
Modern-day uses of asbestos as a fire-resistant material first developed in the mid-1800s. At the time, fire was a common hazard and asbestos was marketed as a safety material.

Starting in the 1950s, lightweight insulation materials such as spray-on fireproofing were used in tall buildings. These ultra-lightweight asbestos materials were applied to steel and other core building structures to prevent them from buckling during a fire. The Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City, built in 1958, was one of the first high-rises to contain spray-on asbestos fireproofing. By 1970, around 40,000 tons of asbestos-containing insulation was used in high-rise construction. Common manufacturers of asbestos fireproofing spray included W.R. Grace, Isolatek International, United States Gypsum, J.W. Roberts Limited and U.S. Mineral.

Two men, Henry Ward and Ludwig Hatschek, are credited with implementing the earliest mass production of fireproof asbestos construction materials. Ward, a building contractor, made fireproof paint and fire-resistant tar paper for roofing in the 1860s. In 1900, Hatschek, an engineer, made the Hatschek machine, which was the first machine that could cheaply and efficiently produce asbestos roof panels.

During the 1500s and 1600s, scientists such as George Agricola, the father of modern mineralogy, were intrigued by asbestos and extensively researched and wrote about the mineral. This scientific research eventually led to inventors using asbestos to create new and better products. In the United States, Benjamin Franklin made one of these first inventions, leveraging the fire-resistant characteristics of asbestos – a fireproof purse – which now lives in the Natural History Museum in London.


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