Insulation and Asbestos
Asbestos in Insulation Products
Insulation products were among the most common sources of asbestos exposure prior to the early 1980s. These consisted of a wide variety of materials that were used for many applications ranging from steam pipe and heating duct insulation to wall insulation. It was also used in linings for industrial ovens, electrical systems, chemical labs and locomotive and marine boilers.
The most common applications of asbestos insulation occurred in the early and mid-20th century in residential and commercial buildings. Because the populace was relatively uninformed about the dangers of asbestos contamination, but quite well-informed about the dangers of fire, public demand for fireproofing technology was very strong. In fact, an entire industry evolved that was focused on manufacturing asbestos-containing building materials, of which insulation was one significant product for homeowners and commercial builders.
The other major use of asbestos insulation was in naval construction. In the early 1930s a devastating fire aboard the luxury liner SS Morro Castle killed 137 people, and led to widespread demands for better fire control aboard maritime craft. Both civilian and U.S. Naval vessels began deploying asbestos insulation and fireproofing material in staggering quantities – many thousands of tons during World War II alone.
Hazards Associated with Insulation Products
Workers in marine industries as well as navy veterans suffer some of the highest rates of asbestos disease, including the two major forms of asbestos cancer, largely from exposure to asbestos insulation used in ship’s boilers, engines, turbines, pumps, valves, and other machinery.
Other workers with a high asbestos exposure risk include those individuals who worked in the factories that produced asbestos insulation, asbestos miners, and individuals who remove or replace worn or damaged asbestos insulation. Most asbestos insulation products are relatively safe when first installed; it is over the course of time, as the insulation is damaged by fire or simply worn from age that the fibers become “friable”, meaning that they can be released into the atmosphere and inhaled by people working or living nearby. Repair workers, maintenance technicians, custodians, and demolition workers are among the job classifications which suffer from higher than average levels of exposure to damaged asbestos insulation.
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)
N/A. "Asbestos Linked to Autoimmune Diseases." Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 113 (2004)