For most of the 20th century, asbestos was thought to be indispensable to the modern science laboratory. The mineral has a soft, fibrous consistency that allows it to be woven into fabric and easily mixed into other substances — yet on a microscopic level, asbestos fibers are almost indestructible, resisting heat, chemical corrosion and electricity.
The unfortunate irony is generations of researchers, professors and students relied on asbestos to keep them safe before the mineral’s cancer-causing effects became public knowledge.
In the past, it was common for worn asbestos laboratory equipment to release asbestos dust, putting everyone in the lab at risk of harmful exposure. Today, there is still a risk of laboratory asbestos exposure whenever transite-lined fume hoods are damaged or removed.
Manufacturers used asbestos in many types of the following types of laboratory equipment.
Fireproof gloves, mitts and sleeves:
Asbestos fibers were woven into safety gear as well as protective coverings for tongs, clamps and other tools.
Bunsen burner mats and gauze pads:
Bunsen burners create a gas flame to quickly heat laboratory samples. Asbestos was used in the gauze pads that support samples above the flame, as well as the safety mats placed below the burners.
Equipment insulation linings:
Laboratory machines, such as ovens and centrifuges, sometimes included asbestos as an internal insulating material. Pure asbestos fibers were also used to filter strong chemicals that would corrode any other kind of thin filter fibers.
Laboratory fume hoods:
A fume hood is a storage unit for dangerous chemicals that uses a ventilation system to draw chemical fumes away from laboratory workers. Many older fume hoods are lined with a type of asbestos cement known as transite.
At the turn of the 20th century, the acceleration of scientific advancement in chemistry and physics created a growing demand for modern laboratory equipment. Chester Garfield Fisher was one of the early entrepreneurs to respond to this need, founding the Fisher Scientific Company in 1902. Fisher Scientific became an industry leader in the making of laboratory equipment, and like many manufacturing companies of the time period, it used asbestos in many of its products.
In the first half of the 1900s, asbestos solidified its reputation for making products safer and more durable, and laboratory researchers proved just as enthusiastic about safety as architects and shipbuilders. Bunsen burners were already well established in science laboratories, and asbestos-containing accessories and protective gear quickly became just as ubiquitous.
In 1936, the Labconco Corporation unveiled the first commercially available fume hood. Until this point, chemists throughout history had relied on less sophisticated ways of protecting themselves from chemical fumes and had often been poisoned by their research materials as a result. The invention of the fume hood represented a leap forward in laboratory safety, but it suffered an unfortunate step back when transite became a common lining for fume hoods.
Transite had originally been the brand name for a product the Johns Manville Corporation introduced in 1929, but over time the word came to be used generically to refer to any similar asbestos cement product. In addition to Labconco, manufacturers of fume hoods with transite linings included Kewaunee Scientific Corporation, Longo Labs and Hamilton Manufacturing.
As the health hazards of asbestos exposure came to light in the 1970s and 1980s, the use of asbestos was phased out in the manufacture of laboratory equipment. However, older research laboratories still commonly contain asbestos cement products such as countertops and fume hood linings as well as machinery with internal asbestos insulation.
The following prominent universities have published safety guidelines concerning asbestos materials in laboratories and other places on campus:
- Cornell University
- Stanford University
- University of British Columbia
- University of California, Los Angeles
- University of Florida
- University of Michigan
- University of Texas at Dallas
- University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Asbestos-related diseases are caused by the accumulation of microscopic asbestos fibers in the body, usually in and around the lungs. Because the mineral has no scent or taste, a person can easily inhale asbestos dust without realizing it. Asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, typically do not present symptoms until decades after exposure.
The level of exposure risk associated with an asbestos-containing material depends on whether the material is friable or nonfriable. A friable material can be crumbled by hand pressure, producing fine dust and debris. In decades past, asbestos gloves, mats and gauze pads often became friable through age and use, exposing many researchers, science teachers and students to inhalable asbestos dust.
The transite linings that remain in some old laboratory fume hoods are generally not considered friable, but asbestos contaminated dust can still be released if the hood linings are damaged, cut or drilled into. As with all asbestos-containing materials, any work affecting transite fume hood linings should be left to licensed asbestos abatement professionals.
In 2005, a former employee of Fisher Scientific, George Baroni, developed mesothelioma. He had been exposed to asbestos while working for the manufacturer from 1959 to 1994. Baroni did not live to see the trial, but the jury ultimately awarded his family $226,000.
A former teacher named James Herbet also filed a lawsuit against Fisher Scientific in 2012 after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Herbet argued he had been exposed to asbestos while using Fisher Scientific’s laboratory equipment in his classrooms from 1979 to 2002. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, however, because the American school where Herbet had worked was located overseas.
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