Years Produced: 1907 – Present

Plastics – new, moldable and inexpensive -were a huge fad product at the turn of the 20th century. This fascinating material could be colored and molded into all kinds of things, like chunky jewelry, machinery parts or fancy phones.

It all started with Bakelite, Leo Baekeland’s innovative plastic molding compound. Unfortunately, some products made with this special compound contained a toxic material, asbestos. Asbestos worked as a reinforcing and fireproofing agent, strengthening and enhancing the material so that it would not break or burn. Two major asbestos plastic materials sold during the 1900s were molding compounds and vinyl asbestos tile. As time and wear weakens these products, broken plastic can emit asbestos.

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At A Glance

  • Places Used: Automotive, electrical and construction industries
  • Toxicity: Low
  • Asbestos Use Banned: No
  • Friable: No

Major developments in plastic occurred around the early 1900s. Alexander Parkes invented one of the first plastic materials, known as Parkesine (and later was rebranded as Celluloid) in 1856. Parkes made several products, including billiard balls, from this early plastic product. The material was flawed because it was highly flammable. For example, billiard balls hitting against each other would reportedly cause little sparks on occasion. In 1907, a chemist named Leo Baekeland created a better plastic product known as Bakelite.

Bakelite is a phenolic plastic, made from phenol-formaldehyde resin. It is a thermosetting plastic, which is molded while hot and sets when it cools. Baekeland found that adding fillers to the plastic molding compounds strengthened the material and kept it from cracking. Asbestos is one of the fillers he used. It not only prevented cracks, but could withstand heat, flames and electrical current. Also, once the molded plastic cooled, the toxic mineral prevented the material from shrinking.

Bakelite became popular throughout the 1900s. It’s known as the first synthetic plastic and the material of a thousand uses. Using Bakelite, companies manufactured molded plastic products such as small machine pieces, road signs, telephones, steering wheels, buttons, pen casings, jewelry and electrical panels. Baekeland continued to experiment with plastic and created a new type of flooring, known as vinyl asbestos tile.

The tile was a mixture of asbestos, binder, limestone, stabilizer, pigment and plasticizer. These tiles were used in supermarkets, department stores, kitchens, commercial plants and near entryways and elevators. Using asbestos prevented abrasion, indentation, cracking and damage from liquids and heat.

Other companies followed Baekeland’s lead of producing reinforced plastics with asbestos. This filler strengthened plastic products such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride polymer), phenolics, polypropylene and nylon. Chemists mixed asbestos fibers with plastic resin in four forms: compounds, woven mats in laminates, woven mats in mold processing and semi-cured woven mats.

Popular asbestos plastic materials include:

  • Electrical cladding and switching
  • Vinyl wall paper
  • Terminal boards and blocks
  • Adhesives
  • Car parts
  • Appliances
  • Casings for switches and controllers
  • Cement roofing
  • Cement seals
  • High performance aerospace industry applications
  • Arc chutes for motors and generators
  • Missile casings

While some asbestos plastic products are still manufactured, their popularity has greatly decreased. Studies as early as 1943 began to reveal that working with the toxic mineral causes lung problems. In the 1980s legislation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and restrictions from the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Clean Air Act limited usage. Companies began to replace the filler with talc, clay, Teflon, fibrous glass, porcelain, silica, carbon and Product X (a plastic substitute made by Raymark industries for military use).


Asbestos plastic products undergoing wear, age and deterioration may release toxic particles. Constant use of car parts, switches, phones and other plastic molding products can cause plastic to break, potentially sending toxic dust into the air. Most of these plastic molding products contain 15 to 17 percent asbestos.

Electricians conducting regular maintenance and repairs may disturb the plastic parts. Electricians drilling through electrical panels or vinyl wallpaper may fill the air with asbestos dust. Asbestos plastic electrical components may also be in the vicinity of other asbestos construction products that further expose electricians to the dangerous mineral.

Floor tillers working with asbestos-vinyl tiles are were put at risk. Cutting tiles before placing them can disturb ground asbestos that is mixed into tile compounds. Additionally, construction workers or demolition workers may come into contact with older tiles that are falling apart. These damaged tiles can release toxic dust into the air.

Plastic plant factory workers preparing plastic molding compounds were surrounded by high concentrations of the deadly mineral. Factory workers would pour raw asbestos fibers into molds, then cut and transport materials. These workers were in danger of breathing asbestos dust and were especially at risk of developing related diseases later in life.

Manufactures that made asbestos-containing plastics include:


Two companies that encountered litigation from asbestos plastic flooring products include Armstrong World Industries and Kentile Floors. Today Armstrong is one the biggest manufacturers of hardwood flooring, but the products they made in the past have cost them millions. In 2006 they created a trust fund to pay damages to people who developed mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.

While Armstrong was able to recover from bankruptcy, Kentile Floors was not as successful. Kentile sold tiles and flooring products, with some products containing as much as 25 percent asbestos. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1992, but was unable to recover. Kentile officially shut down in 1998.

Workers, like Wayne Bendily, developed asbestos-related illnesses from preparing asbestos plastic products. Bendily’s work involved mining, processing and manufacturing asbestos-containing insulation and plastic cement. In 1996, Bendily filed a lawsuit against multiple manufacturers, including the Flintkote Company, after Dr. Glenn Gomes diagnosed Bendily with asbestosis. Bendily accused the Flintkote Company of failing to warn about the risks of using their contaminated plastic cement. A judge awarded Bendily $780,000 in total damages.

James Ginter worked for Durez Plastics creating asbestos friction products. Durez manufactured industrial resins and phenolic molding compounds. Ginter was exposed to asbestos when he used asbestos molding in friction testing machines. In 2010, doctors diagnosed him with mesothelioma. A year later, a New York Jury awarded Ginter $2.5 million.


Brands of plastic products containing asbestos include:

  • Dura PlasticTalcote
  • Elastigum
  • WVR
  • Wet Seal
  • Nu-Da Asgum
  • Mura-Tex plastic wall tile

Plastic Plant

A court sentenced Charles Donahoo to a prison term and charged him a fine when his company Charlie's Wrecking and Salvage, Inc. demolished a plastic plant in 1987, sending a pound of asbestos fibers into the air. He violated the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability (CERCL) Act and the 1970 Clean Air Act by withholding knowledge of the asbestos fibers. Donahoo was the first person convicted of a felony under the CERCL act, signifying a new era of environmental law.

Additional Resources

  1. Bakelite. Phenolic resin and casting resin. (2006 February 17). Retrieved from
  2. Bregar, Bill. 100 Years Later, Bakelite shines. (2012 August 1). Retrieved from
  3. Environmental Protection Agency. (2001 May). Economic Impact Analysis of Proposed Reinforced Plastics NESHAP. Retrieved from
  4. Barker, J.M., Kogel, J.E., Krukowski, S.T., & Trivedi, N.C. (Eds.). (2006). Industrial Minerals & Rocks: Commodities, Markets, and Uses (7th edition). Littleton, CO:
  5. Higgins, R.A. (2006). Materials for Engineers and Technicians (4th edition). Oxford, UK: Newness.
  6. Retropaper. Asbestos Literature. (2012 May 13). Retrieved from
  7. American Alternatives. Asbestos-Reinforced Plastics. (2004 March 25). Retrieved from
  8. The University of Nottingham. (Oct. 2008). What ACMs Look Like and Where to Find Them. Retrieved from
  9. Crosby, James H. What Every Lawyer Needs To Know And Have To Work in Asbestos Litigation. (2011 May 9). Retrieved from
  10. Henderson, R. (1993 December). Crimes Against Nature. Reason Foundation, 25:7. Retrieved from
  11. 2.5 Million awarded in Asbestos Case Verdict. (2011 July 15). Buffalo News. Retrieved from

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