Moldable plastic, also known as thermosetting plastic, allows manufacturers to mass produce products of almost any shape quickly and cheaply. The first brand of plastic fit for this purpose, Bakelite, had a phenol-formaldehyde resin base, but its inventor realized this chemical mixture needed fillers added into it to improve its strength and prevent it from shrinking too much when it cooled.
Many types of fillers can serve these basic purposes, but asbestos fibers brought additional benefits, making plastic resistant to moisture, heat, acid and electricity. Asbestos was a natural choice in plastics for high-temperature and electrical applications, and since the naturally occurring mineral was cheap and easy to work with, manufacturers often used asbestos plastics by default for many other types of products as well.
Asbestos found its way into many types of plastic products before its toxicity finally became public knowledge.
- Electrical components: Plastic is a poor conductor of electricity, making it an ideal base for circuit breakers, switchboards and electrical panels. Fireproofing is a high priority for electricians, which made asbestos-containing products an attractive option.
- Consumer goods: Plastic is also a poor conductor of heat, which is why a person can safely touch the plastic handle of a frying pan even while the metal part is extremely hot. Asbestos plastic was used to produce some tools, cookware and appliances.
- Automobile parts: Like manufacturers of consumer goods, carmakers used asbestos plastic for all types of automobile parts, from the arc chute under the hood, to the steering wheel behind the dashboard, to the pads lining the brakes.
- Aircraft and weapon systems: The aerospace industry took advantage of the lightweight and insulating properties of asbestos plastic by using it for high-tech items such as rocket nose cones, aircraft drop tanks and missile casings.
Alexander Parkes invented the first man-made plastic in 1856, which John and Isaiah Hyatt later rebranded as Celluloid. Parkes had sought to create a substitute for ivory, and though Celluloid was successful in many regards, its notoriously high flammability made it dangerous.
In 1907, a chemist named Dr. Leo Baekeland created the first synthetic thermosetting plastic, which he named Bakelite. When combined with wood and asbestos fibers for filler, Bakelite proved to be an all-around durable substance manufacturers could mold into any shape necessary. Baekeland marketed it as “the material of a thousand uses,” and the rapid growth of the plastics industry throughout the 20th century backed up his claim.
Other companies followed Baekeland’s lead in using asbestos to reinforce plastic products, including PVC (polyvinyl chloride polymer), phenolics, polypropylene and nylon. The production of these plastics often required factory workers to pour raw asbestos fibers into mixing tanks and molds, creating occupational asbestos exposure risks.
In the 1970s and 1980s, legislation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and restrictions in the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Clean Air Act finally began to limit the use of asbestos in the United States. As most industries phased out asbestos use, plastic manufacturers adopted a variety of substitute fillers, including calcium carbonate, talc, clay, mica, glass and silica.
Manufactures that made asbestos plastics include:
- Allied Chemical & Dye Corporation
- American Petrofina
- Armstrong World Industries
- Certainteed Corporation
- Combustion Engineering
- Durametallic Corporation
- Flintkote Company
- Garlock Packing Company
- Greene, Tweed & Company
- Indianapolis Paint & Color Company
- Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation
- Mobile Oil Corporation
- TBA Industrial Products Limited
- Tile-Tex Company
- United Gilsonite Laboratories
- W. R. Grace & Company
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Up until the 1980s, chemical plant workers preparing asbestos plastic molding compounds were often surrounded by high concentrations of toxic asbestos dust, especially when their work involved pouring raw asbestos fibers and cutting and transporting asbestos-containing materials. Workers who regularly breathe in asbestos dust have the highest risk of developing asbestos-related diseases later in life.
Molded asbestos plastic products are generally less dangerous than other types of asbestos-containing materials. Plastic fixes asbestos fibers in place, making it less likely they will become airborne. Electricians, construction workers, auto mechanics and homeowners can suffer asbestos exposure when old electrical components are drilled, sawed or damaged, but other less durable asbestos products, especially insulation, pose a far greater risk.
In 2010, former chemist James Ginter filed a lawsuit against several companies after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. His cancer had been caused by asbestos exposure he suffered while employed at Durez Plastics, where he worked with asbestos friction products.
One of the defendants in the case was Ford Motor Company, which had supplied a friction assessment screening test machine. Ginter claimed he was never warned that its use would create hazardous asbestos dust. A New York jury found Ford and several other companies responsible for Ginter’s exposure and awarded him $2.5 million in total.
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Last Modified October 4, 2018