Asbestos in Attic Insulation and Other Building Materials
During the 19th century and most of the 20th, building fires were a constant hazard. This was particularly true at a time when more homes used gas and oil lamps for lighting than electricity. Even after the advent of electrical lighting, amateurish wiring posed a significant fire hazard in millions of buildings.
While asbestos has been around since ancient times – Charlemagne is said to have had a "magical" asbestos tablecloth in the 9th century that he would toss into the fireplace for cleaning - it was Henry Johns, whose name survives as part of Johns-Manville, who started the modern asbestos industry just prior to the American Civil War.
Asbestos roofing was the first commercial building material to be made with asbestos, but it was not long before nearly every type of construction material was manufactured with this substance. Insulation, particularly attic insulation, was one of the most common asbestos-containing building materials. Most of this asbestos insulation consisted of chrysotile, or "white" asbestos. Chrysotile was a main ingredient in a W.R. Grace product known as Monokote® - a type of spray-on insulation material that was used extensively in many homes and commercial buildings, including the World Trade Center. Zonolite was another common asbestos-based attic insulation used extensively in the 1950s through the late 1970s.
Homeowners who know or suspect that their attics contain any form of asbestos should contact a professional asbestos abatement contractor and not attempt to remove it on their own.
Hazards Associated with Attic Insulation Products
Insulation installers were exposed to large amounts of asbestos fibers on the job, and most of them did not have access to effective safety equipment. Workers who maintain or repair older buildings are also often exposed to old asbestos-based attic insulation; one estimate is that there are more than 750,000 commercial and residential buildings in the United States alone that still contain asbestos. The older and more worn asbestos is, the more dangerous it becomes; asbestos which is worn or frayed can be easily inhaled and can lead directly to asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)