How Were Asbestos Plastic Products Used?
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. Its inventor realized this chemical mixture needed fillers to improve its strength and prevent it from shrinking too much when cooled.
Many types of fillers serve these basic purposes, but asbestos fibers brought additional benefits, making the plastic resistant to moisture, heat, acid and electricity. Asbestos was a natural choice in plastics for high-temperature and electrical applications. Because 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.
While Bakelite contained asbestos from at least 1909 to 1974, most American manufacturers phased out asbestos around the mid-1980s. Asbestos plastic products remain in production internationally. In 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed a temporary ban on the importation of one type of asbestos plastic, known as reinforced plastic, while it reviews potential new uses of the mineral. Asbestos sheet gaskets, which may be made from plastic, remain legal to manufacture and import into the U.S.
Types of Asbestos Moldable Plastic Products
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.
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 consumer goods, including tools, cookware and appliances. For example, asbestos plastic was used in stove linings and cookware handles.
Asbestos and plastic polymers were added to certain textiles, including rope, yarn and fabric, to reinforce these materials. For example, the North American Asbestos Corporation manufactured asbestos-containing plastic textiles under the brand name Noramite.
Like manufacturers of consumer goods, carmakers used asbestos plastic for all types of automobile parts, including arc chutes, steering wheels and brake pads.
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.
Asbestos plastic products also took the form of vinyl wallpaper, tiles and flooring as well as plastic cement. Asbestos plastic cement was applied to masonry, brick and felt surfaces.
Companies Connected to Asbestos Plastics
Manufacturers that made asbestos plastics include:
- Allied Chemical & Dye Corporation
- American Petrofina
- Armstrong World Industries
- Certainteed Corporation
- Combustion Engineering
- Durametallic Corporation
- Durez Plastics
- Eastman Chemical Company
- Flintkote Company
- Garlock Packing Company
- Greene, Tweed & Company
- Indianapolis Paint & Color Company
- Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation
- Mobile Oil Corporation
- North American Asbestos Corporation
- TBA Industrial Products Limited
- Tile-Tex Company
- United Gilsonite Laboratories
- W. R. Grace & Company
Diseases Asbestos Moldable Plastic Products Can Cause
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.
Exposure to asbestos in plastic products is known to cause:
- Lung cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
Molded asbestos plastic products are generally less dangerous than other types of asbestos-containing materials because they are less friable, which means less easily crushed by hand. Plastic fixes asbestos fibers in place, but these products release asbestos when damaged. Electricians, construction workers, auto mechanics and homeowners can suffer asbestos exposure when old electrical components are drilled, sawed or broken. This type of damage exposes asbestos fibers within the plastic, allowing them to become airborne.
If you worked with asbestos plastics and develop an asbestos-related disease, it is important to seek medical care from a doctor specializing in your specific diagnosis. Working with a specialist may lead to improved survival by giving you access to the latest treatments and clinical trials.
Compensation for Exposure to Asbestos in Plastics
Many manufacturers of asbestos plastics knew their products were dangerous and chose to use asbestos regardless of the health effects. Decades of lawsuits revealed internal documents from some of these companies, including W.R. Grace, proving they were aware that asbestos causes lung disease and cancer.
Workers who developed asbestos-related diseases after using asbestos plastics have filed personal injury lawsuits against the manufacturers of these products, and those who lost a loved one have filed wrongful death lawsuits.
- In 2015, plaintiff Joseph Muir was awarded $5.6 million in a mesothelioma lawsuit against asbestos supplier Hedman Resources Ltd., which provided raw asbestos to plastic manufacturer Durez Plastics. Durez used the asbestos to make a plastic molding compound that was sold to other U.S. plastic manufacturers.
- In 2010, former chemist James Ginter filed a lawsuit against several companies after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. His cancer was 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 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.
- Beginning in 2002, plaintiffs with asbestos-related diseases began filing asbestos lawsuits against plastic manufacturer Eastman Chemical Company. By March 2003, more than 7,000 asbestos claims had been filed against the company. Eastman is working to resolve the claims through settlements and litigation in U.S. courts.
A mesothelioma attorney can review your case to advise whether you qualify to file a lawsuit and multiple asbestos trust fund claims. Other forms of compensation include VA claims, Social Security Disability and treatment and travel grants.
Abatement and History of Asbestos Moldable Plastics
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration classifies abatement of asbestos plastic products as a class II operation, which requires workers to be trained and certified in asbestos abatement. It also requires the use of negative pressure enclosures to prevent contamination, and other safety measures, including personal protective equipment to prevent asbestos exposure.
Homeowners and do-it-yourselfers could face big fines for carrying out abatement of asbestos plastic products. Make sure to hire a licensed asbestos abatement company for this kind of work.
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 U.S. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempted to enact a ban on all asbestos products, but it was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991.
Fearing legal repercussions, many companies began to phase out asbestos in the 1980s. Plastic manufacturers adopted a variety of substitute fillers, including calcium carbonate, talc, clay, mica, glass and silica. Unfortunately, using talc as a filler presents the risk of asbestos contamination. These minerals form next to each other, and industrial uses of talc run the highest risk for contamination because of the way industrial talc is classified and processed.
Many companies used asbestos to reinforce plastic products that included 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 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 that 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.