Written By: Michelle Whitmer,
Last modified: June 7, 2021
Quick Facts
  • Years Produced:
    1900s – 1980s
  • Places Used:
    Laboratories and industrial settings
  • Toxicity:
    Low
  • Asbestos Use Banned:
    No
  • Friable:
    No

How Was Asbestos Used in Laboratories?

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.

Unfortunately, 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 older transite-lined fume hoods are damaged or removed. Any fume hood made before 1988 may contain asbestos. Other older laboratory materials, such as gloves, mats and countertops, may contain asbestos and should be tested to determine if they are contaminated. New versions of these laboratory supplies are no longer made with asbestos in the U.S., but international manufacturers may still use asbestos. There are no regulations to prevent asbestos-containing lab equipment from entering the U.S.

Types of Asbestos Laboratory Equipment

Asbestos Textile Sleeve

Fireproof Gloves, Mitts and Sleeves

Asbestos fibers were woven into gloves, mitts and sleeves as well as protective coverings for tongs, clamps and other tools.

Asbestos Bunsen Burner Mat

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. These products were also called asbestos mat boards, asbestos chemistry pads or simply asbestos sheets.

Asbestos Transite Oven

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.

Countertops

Some laboratory countertops were made of asbestos cement because this material is unlikely to react to chemicals and is resistant to heat and fire.

Companies Connected to Asbestos Fume Hoods and Laboratory Equipment

  • Arthur Thomas Scientific
  • Fisher Scientific
  • Hamilton Manufacturing
  • Kewaunee Scientific Corporation
  • Labconco
  • Longo Labs

Diseases Asbestos Laboratory Equipment and Fume Hoods Can Cause

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 in laboratory equipment is known to cause the following diseases:

  • Mesothelioma
  • Lung cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Asbestosis

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, students and workers to inhalable asbestos dust.

If you are diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease it is important to seek medical care from a doctor who specializes in your diagnosis. Treating these diseases early is important to long-term survival, and specialists can help you access innovative treatments.

Compensation for Exposure to Asbestos in Fume Hoods and Laboratory Equipment

Lawsuits against manufacturers of asbestos-containing laboratory equipment, including Fisher Scientific, have revealed the companies were aware of the dangers of asbestos but decided to use the material regardless. An internal memo produced by employees at Fisher Scientific in 1977 said they should begin to phase out asbestos. It said the material would soon be unmarketable because of growing public knowledge of the dangers of asbestos.  

  • Harold Mehnert worked as a lab technician for 36 years for U.S. Geological Survey, where he handled asbestos-containing lab equipment. In 2017, he filed a personal injury lawsuit against Fisher Scientific claiming their lab equipment caused him to develop mesothelioma. In April 2020, a Pennsylvania court denied Fisher Scientific’s request to be dismissed from the lawsuit, which allowed the case to move forward. No further updates on the case have been made public.
  • A former teacher named James Herbert filed a lawsuit against Fisher Scientific in 2012 after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Herbert argued he was 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 Herbert worked was located overseas.
  • In 2005, a former employee of Fisher Scientific, George Baroni, developed mesothelioma. He was 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.

An experienced mesothelioma lawyer can review your case to advise you on the types of legal claims you may qualify to file. In addition to personal injury lawsuits and wrongful death lawsuits, you may qualify to file multiple claims with asbestos trust funds.

Other forms of compensation include VA claims, Social Security Disability, workers’ compensation and treatment and travel grants.

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Abatement and History of Asbestos Laboratory Equipment and Fume Hoods

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.

If you are suspicious that other laboratory equipment may contain asbestos, call an asbestos abatement company for their professional opinion. They can test the material to see if it contains asbestos, and can safely remove and dispose of the product. 

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

These safety guidelines advise students, teachers, professors and lab workers to not disturb any material they suspect contains asbestos. They recommend informing the school of any suspicious material that seems damaged so it can be safely abated by a licensed professional. 

Transite was originally 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 1936, the Labconco Corporation unveiled the first commercially available fume hood. Until this point, chemists throughout history relied on less sophisticated ways of protecting themselves from chemical fumes and often were 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.

In the first half of the 1900s, asbestos had a 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 widespread.

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 numerous manufacturing companies of the time period, it used asbestos in many of its products.


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