Asbestos is known to be an excellent fire retardant, and as such is often viewed as a model material to use in the construction and industrial industries. In the late 1800s, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, asbestos mining began a strong and steady growth. Asbestos use became widespread, found in technological marvels such as steam engines, turbines, boilers, ovens, and electrical generators. It was also very important in building, binding and strengthening myriads of materials. Asbestos continued to be the focal element in many common products from cement to insulation to car parts well into the 20th century. Even the United States military mandated its use in every branch of service.
However, serious health issues have been linked to exposure of asbestos. Even as early as the late 19th century, cases were being reported regarding asbestos fibers found in the lungs of some people.
Commercial production of asbestos insulation began in 1879 when the first commercial asbestos mines were opened in Quebec. The first case of asbestos-related disease described as lung scarring, or “curious bodies,” occurred in 1899. The first medical article on the hazards of asbestos appeared in a British medical journal in 1924 and described the death of a woman who worked in an asbestos textile plant. The first cases of asbestosis and lung cancer due to asbestos exposure in the U.S. were reported in 1935. Shipyard workers were easily exposed, and by 1939, the Navy’s Surgeon General had issued warnings of the risks associated with exposure to asbestos.
In 1964, medical findings were published showing that asbestos causes lung damage and lung disease. Additionally, in the 1960s a third asbestos related disease, mesothelioma, was discovered. Also during that time, researchers learned that the hazards of asbestos dust were not confined to workers in asbestos factories but extended to insulation workers, other users of products containing asbestos, and even people who lived close to asbestos factories.
The first major asbestos lawsuit was filed in 1969 in federal court in Texas. The case, Borel v. Fibreboard Paper, made it up to the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff; however, the plaintiff died of mesothelioma before the Court wrote its decision.
In the early 1970s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) focused on asbestos as one of its first regulatory targets. OSHA instituted regulations that became effective on April 28, 1971. It set the first standards in the United States for workplace asbestos exposure, which included a maximum of 5 fibers per cubic centimeter of air during an eight-hour workday. The standard was changed to 2 fibers in 1976, to 0.5 fiber in 1983 and to 0.1 fiber in 1994, which is still the standard. That is 1/50th the level of the 1971 measure.
Despite its known harmful effects on humans, and being known to cause mesothelioma cancer, asbestos is not completely banned in the United States or Canada. However, in 2005, asbestos was banned throughout the European Union. In fact, asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries, with a restriction of its use in others.
Many items which contain asbestos have still not been banned, including:
- Cement corrugated sheet
- Cement flat sheet
- Pipeline wrap
- Roofing felt
- Vinyl floor tile
- Cement shingle
- Cement pipe
- Automatic transmission components
- Clutch facings
- Friction materials
- Disk brake pads
- Drum brake linings
- Brake blocks
- Non-roofing coatings
- Roof coatings
Traditional occupations associated with high levels of asbestos exposure include:
- aircraft manufacturers and mechanics
- automobile manufacturers and mechanics
- construction and demolition
- shipyard workers
- plant/mill workers
- powerhouse workers
- railroad workers
- refinery workers
- sheet metal workers