Asbestos in Laboratory Gloves and Other Safety Equipment
Of all types of asbestos-lined safety gloves used by workers in a range of occupations, laboratory gloves were perhaps the most toxic. This was not caused by anything unique to their design, as asbestos-lined gloves were a commonplace item in laboratories from the very beginning of the 20th century – any work application that involved high heat generally also involved asbestos-lined gloves to protect the hands of the workers. Rather, it was the form of asbestos used in a laboratory context that provided the extra element of danger.
There are three types of asbestos that were used in commercial applications and safety equipment. Most of this was white chrysotile asbestos, which accounted for 97-98% of all asbestos used in the U.S. This type of asbestos was commonly used in fire suits, welding and glassblower gloves and asbestos helmets. Exposure to this type of asbestos could cause asbestosis and pleural thickening. When it came to laboratories in which caustic and corrosive chemicals were present however, the type of asbestos used was amosite. This is also known as "brown" asbestos because of its yellowish-brown appearance. The color is due to its iron content; this made amosite highly resistant to corrosive chemicals. Amosite was thus uniquely suited for use in laboratory gloves, as it was largely impervious to the dangerous conditions found there.
Unfortunately amosite is also the most dangerous form of asbestos, with very strong links to the worst form of asbestos disease, malignant mesothelioma.
Hazards Associated with Laboratory Glove Products
The workers who produced asbestos lined laboratory gloves were among those at risk of asbestos exposure. A larger group of potential asbestos victims, however, included the scientists, lab technicians, and students who worked in the laboratories of the early and middle 20th century and who relied on these gloves for protection. When asbestos fibers become worn or abraded, as would happen with relative frequency within most laboratory environments, the material becomes “friable” and individual asbestos fibers can easily separate from the rest of the material. These tiny fibers can easily be inhaled and the inhalation of these types of fibers is strongly correlated to the development of mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases.
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)