Years Produced: 1930 – present
As electricity became popular in the United States in the 1900s, new materials and products were utilized to make electrical supply and distribution systems safe. An electrical panel is a device that accepts electricity from the main power supply and distributes it throughout a building. A cable from the main power supply is connected to a distribution box within the panel. Within the distribution box, fuses or breakers are used to connect the main power to electrical cables running throughout the house.
Electrical current can produce heat, and if not grounded properly it can arc and cause a fire. Moreover, electrical current by itself can be dangerous as well. Asbestos was used as insulation in early electrical panels because it was resistant to both heat and fire as well as electrical current. It was the perfect material to make these early electrical systems safer to use.
The same qualities that made asbestos the perfect insulating material also made it a health hazard. Asbestos fibers are toxic and can cause a wide variety of health problems, including mesothelioma and lung cancer. Anyone involved in working with early electrical panels, such as factory workers, that made the panels, electricians that installed them, and maintenance workers maintained them were potentially exposed to deadly asbestos fibers.
At a particular risk of exposure were electricians, like those in the Navy, who worked on the panels in confined spaces; making it more likely they would inhale asbestos fibers.
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Following Thomas Edison’s invention of light bulbs in 1879, homes built in the 1900s were constructed with electricity for lighting, air conditioning and appliances. George Westinghouse established Westinghouse Electric in 1886, building hundreds of power stations throughout the United States. By the 1930s, most homes and buildings in busier commercial towns had electricity. Each of these building and houses came equipped with electrical supply systems, which controlled the distribution of electricity.
Westinghouse Electric and other companies made electrical supply systems with electrical panels in the form of small or large walls, mounting boards, partitions and doors. Prior to 1980, these panels were often made with asbestos-containing cement, millboard, tar, plastic or ebony wood. Asbestos was a popular choice because of its low cost, low electrical conductivity and high electrical resistivity. Separating high voltage components, asbestos panels prevented blown fuses from causing fires.
More asbestos materials may be found inside electrical supply systems. The wiring between panels may be covered with asbestos cloth, which provides insulation and protects wires from flames. Other asbestos materials include arc chutes, flash guards (insulation paper), braided-rope and reinforced plastic switches.
At its peak the United States used 135,000 metric tons of Asbestos every year. Four percent of that was used for electrical and thermal insulation. Common manufacturers of panels during this time period include General Electric, Johns-Manville, Quin-T Corporation, Square D, Power Magnetics, Union Carbide Corporation, Siemens Energy & Automation and Cutler Hammer. However, after studies revealing the negative effects of asbestos were released, electrical companies began to replace the asbestos materials for panels with gypsum, calcium silicate, expanded perlite, cellulose and polystyrene.
During preparation of asbestos panel compounds in asbestos mills, miners crushed, graded and refined asbestos, releasing dust into the air. The processed asbestos was added to materials like tar, cement and millboard. The amount of asbestos in mixtures varied. For instance, ebony panels, which acted as a heat insulator were made up of about 50-percent asbestos, but asbestos flash guards, which protected against electrical arcs, were 80-percent asbestos. Cutting finished panels also exposes workers to asbestos dust.
Simply replacing a blown fuse on an older electrical supply system can put workers in contact with disturbed asbestos. Construction workers, electricians, remodelers, homeowners and demolition workers installing panels or sawing, drilling, hammering, sanding, chipping, inspecting, removing, breaking or maintaining panels may release fibers into the air, the surrounding area and on to clothing.
Typical asbestos abatement procedures require wetting dangerous areas to prevent fibers from becoming airborne. To prevent electrical hazards from supply systems, workers use either a dry technique with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) ventilation or ensure that connectors are disconnected or shut off.Dry technique requires special approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Navy workers and electricians have filed hundreds of lawsuits against asbestos electrical panel manufacturers after developing serious injuries such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. Both Westinghouse and General Electric have lost many workers compensation cases based on asbestos exposure. Sometimes a workers diagnosis and subsequent trial may follow decades of work with a product.
Nicholas Amato used asbestos-containing electric circuit panels while working as an electrician in New York City from 1949 to 1993. Amato’s job required him to scrape at the material, using sandpaper before adding relays. The panels consisted of Bakelite materials used by Siemen’s Energy and Automation. In 2011 Amato filed a personal injury lawsuit against Siemens’.
Philip Hoeffer experienced multiple asbestos exposures. Working for Rockwell, Hoeffer assisted in cleaning up broken electrical panel boxes. Working as a Navy technician, he operated Westinghouse and Cutler Hammer Panels on Navy ships. Even after his Navy service, Hoeffer built electrical panels, cutting and drilling asbestos panels for circuit boards. All of these instances contributed to Hoeffer’s diagnosis of mesothelioma. At trial, he received $2,999,543 in damages.
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