Asbestos was seen as an inexpensive additive that could be used to create a range of inexpensive, fire-resistant products, including materials such as roofing shingles, wallboard and concrete. It was woven into textiles to make fire-resistant fabrics and cloths, plus fire-resistant insulations and coatings.
Asbestos works well as a fire-resistant material because of its chemical properties. It is non-flammable and non-combustible and has a melting point of around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. It consists of lightweight fibers that are stronger than cotton, rayon or nylon. Those fibers are also flexible enough to be woven with other fibers (hence their use in textiles), mixed and sprayed with cement or packed with other materials.
With no laws or regulations in place to limit the use of asbestos, it was added to thousands of products, primarily in the construction industry. In the late 1970s, studies revealed that asbestos is a carcinogen and a health hazard. The hazards stem from human exposure to asbestos. From that point, its use as a fireproofing material declined, and its use in many products was banned.
At A Glance
- Places Used: Textiles, construction
- Toxicity: High
- Asbestos Use Banned: No
- Friable: Only fireproofing spray
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In his travels, the famous Italian merchant, traveler and explorer Marco Polo found fire-resistant clothing in China made from salamander wool or cotton rock. 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 intense scientific exposure 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 resides in the Natural History Museum.
Modern day uses of asbestos as a fire resistant material developed in the mid-1800s. At the time fire was a fairly common hazard. The first asbestos fire prevention materials developed were textiles. Asbestos was woven into fabrics to make them more fire resistant.
Those asbestos textiles were then made into hundreds of different fire prevention products like:
- Suits for firefighters
- Laboratory gloves
- Pot holders
- Theater curtains (called iron curtains)
The inclusion of asbestos in fire-resistant construction materials was not far behind its incorporation into textiles. Two men, Henry Ward and Ludwig Hatschek, are credited with implementing the earliest mass production of fireproof asbestos construction materials. Henry Ward, a building contractor, made fireproof paint and fire-resistant tar paper for roofing in the 1860s. In 1900 Ludwig Hatschek, an engineer, made the Hatschek machine, which was the first machine that could cheaply and efficiently produce asbestos roof panels.
Following roofing materials, a fireproof spray was added during building construction. Starting in the 1950s, lightweight insulation materials such as spray-on fireproofing were utilized in tall buildings. These ultra-lightweight asbestos materials were applied to steel and other core building materials to prevent structures from buckling during a fire. The Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City, built in 1958, was one of the first high rises to have spray 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.
Over the years a wide array of asbestos construction materials were developed, covering nearly every conceivable potential fire hazard:
- Tar paper
- Plastic cement
- Spray on cement
- Wallboard panels
- Boards and cement used for ships
- Paint mixtures
- Fire doors
- Ceiling tile
- Roof panels
Miscellaneous fireproof materials include:
- Auto brake lining
- Iron holders
- Theater wood
- Metal blankets for welders
- Fire dampers
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 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to restrict the use of Asbestos. Federal legislation also prevented the production of specific asbestos products.
The Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) determined in 1973 that asbestos fire-proofing spray should be banned. However, it revised its decision in 1991, stating that the fireproofing spray must contain either less than 1 percent asbestos or have the asbestos encapsulated within a binder. Fireproofing spray continues to be sold, but without asbestos listed as an ingredient because of the small quantity added.
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Because of the range of fireproof materials, plus where and how they were used, their asbestos content varies from product to product. For instance, ceiling tiles contain on average 10 percent asbestos, while insulating boards could contain up to 40 percent asbestos. Textiles developed for fireproofing purposes could be made of as much as 100 percent asbestos.
Because of the prevalence of asbestos fireproofing products, a large number of different occupations could potentially be unknowingly exposed to asbestos. However, because of the very nature of asbestos fireproofing products, construction workers and firefighters are particularly at risk of exposure to high concentrations of asbestos. When buildings are renovated demolished, products that contain asbestos can be damaged. When these products are damaged asbestos is released, potentially exposing anyone in the general vicinity to the mineral.
Asbestos fireproofing spray is a particularly dangerous material. When it is first applied, it is a wet, foam-like material. As it dries out, it becomes friable. Friable means that the material crumbles easily. As asbestos fireproofing ages it becomes even more friable, often to the point where even the slightest disturbance will cause exposure.
Claimants like Timothy Waters and Carroll Marrow developed health problems from encounters with asbestos fireproofing spray. 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.
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. His case was part of a Baltimore, Maryland, trial of asbestos-related multidistrict consolidation and 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.
Fireproofing spray sold under the brands:
The World Trade Center and Fireproofing
Asbestos fireproofing used in the construction of the Twin Towers emitted asbestos dust in the air, following the September 11, 2001, collapse of the towers. The New York State Department of Health attributes 55 deaths following the event to lung cancer, which may have been caused by asbestos.
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Last Modified October 26, 2018
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