Asbestos in Fireproofing and Other Building Materials
The fireproofing qualities of asbestos have been known since ancient times; the word itself comes from a Greek term which translates as "inextinguishable." Valued for its durability, asbestos became the standard in fireproofing during the 19th century.
America's crowded cities and towns during the 1800s were prone to disastrous fires. The Great Chicago Fire is the best known, but such city-wide conflagrations were far from uncommon. It was fire that did the real damage to San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake.
Henry Johns believed he had found a solution when he started a building supply company in Manhattan in 1859. The company's first product was fire-proof roof shingles; before long, the company - which eventually became Johns-Manville - was offering a large variety of asbestos-containing fireproofing products. Unfortunately, what Johns did not realize was that asbestos had severe health affects for people who inhaled or ingested it – a case of the cure being worse than the disease.
Another very common fireproofing material during the 20th century was Monokote®. A product of the W.R. Grace Corporation, Monokote® was a form of spray-on insulation that was used extensively in building construction. During the construction of the World Trade Center in the late 1960s and early 1970s, thousands of tons of Monokote® were sprayed onto the building's steel girders. The consequences of that have become painfully clear in the years since the World Trade Center towers collapsed in September of 2001; first responders to the disaster continue to suffer from severe respiratory diseases. The exposure was so intense that one EMT developed mesothelioma and died from the cancer within five years, whereas in most cases the disease takes 20-50 years to kill a person.
Ironically, this deadly and often carcinogenic form of fireproofing was used to line protective clothing worn by steelworkers, oil refinery employees, firefighters and even race car drivers. As long as the lining of such clothing was intact, there was little problem; however, these articles of clothing eventually wore out and the asbestos lining became exposed, endangering the health of the people who wore them.
Hazards Associated with Fireproofing Products
Asbestos fireproofing, like other asbestos products, is generally safe until it is damaged or becomes worn. When that happens, the material can become friable, meaning that the individual asbestos fibers can easily be separated from their surrounding material. These individual fibers can then be inhaled, which is strongly correlated to the development of malignant mesothelioma and other serious diseases. Individuals who installed asbestos fireproofing materials are at some risk, but the highest risk groups are workers in the factories that produce the materials and maintenance, repair, and demolition workers who are responsible for replacing or removing the asbestos fireproofing once it becomes worn out.
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)