Plumbing is a subset of a larger group of construction trades that also includes pipelaying, pipefitting, and steamfitting. Plumbers are responsible for installing, maintaining and repairing water, waste and gas pipe systems on residential and/or small commercial properties. Pipefitters work primarily on large commercial sites and steamfitters specialize in pipes that transport highly pressurized substances.
Though the history of plumbing dates back to Ancient Times, it wasn't until the mid-1800's that somewhat effective plumbing systems were developed and employed in the United States. Early pipes were made of wood until the nineteenth century, when a change was made to iron. Indoor plumbing made its first known stateside appearance in luxury hotels, and Boston's Tremont Hotel led the way in 1829. Five years later, pioneering architect Isaiah Rogers brought an improvement to his initial design at New York's Astor House.
Unfortunately, until more sanitary sewer systems were constructed in the 1840's, many people in the USA thought bathing to be a health hazard. Ever the trendsetter, Benjamin Franklin is said to have imported America's first bathtub. The first of many plumbing companies still in business today appeared in the 1890's with businesses such as American Radiator (which then became American Standard), The Kohler Company, and Crane Corporation. And from the late 1920's to the early 1950's, the plumbing trade really began to flourish, as sales of plumbing supplies increased by a staggering 367 percent.
Plumbers are at Risk for Asbestos Exposure on the Job
For about forty years, from the 1940's to the 1980's, plumbers were frequently exposed to asbestos on the job because asbestos products were widely used as insulation or to prevent condensation on boilers, tanks, ducts, pipes and other plumbing systems. Asbestos-containing materials (ACM) such as pipe block, pipe coating, cement insulation, and gaskets were regularly utilized in plumbing projects. Since plumbers often worked in close, cramped spaces without protective gear, they often inhaled asbestos particles as they cut asbestos paper, sawed, soldered and joined pipes or sanded down block insulation, resulting in the release of tiny and sometimes lethal airborne asbestos fibers. Sadly, this kind of toxic inhalation often results in asbestos-related lung diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Plumbers Use a Variety of Asbestos Products
There are a number of standard products that plumbers encounter on a routine basis. Many of these products contained asbestos, increasing exposure to asbestos dust, which is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Provided below is a representative cross-section of products that plumbers typically used that may have contained asbestos.
Corrugated asbestos paper, looks comparably like gray cardboard (Trade names: Asbestocel and Carcycel, among others). This product is usually high in concentration, anywhere between 50 - 90% asbestos. It was also wrapped around air supply ducts.
A combination of asbestos with other binders that was then hardened to create blocks for insulation. The outside surface was commonly covered with cloth made from canvas or tar paper, but it was occasionally used without any covering at all. The following are types of block insulation commonly encountered by plumbers:
- Amosite Sheeting: amosite (a type of asbestos) that was processed and covered with felt that was mainly used for pipe insulation.
- Carbonate of Magnesia: asbestos combined with magnesium carbonate.
- Diatomaceous Earth with Asbestos Fiber: a combination of diatomaceous silica (the remains of microscopic diatoms) and asbestos fiber that could withstand temperatures up to 1900° Fahrenheit.
- Hydrous Calcium Silicate: known as 'Calsil', made primarily of lime and silica but with a small amount of asbestos that was included for mechanical purposes.
- Joint/Elbow Fillers: also called 'insulation cement' or 'insulation mud' made up of asbestos combined with bonding clays. This product was often poured into inaccessible spaces or used to seal pipe joints or elbows.
- Laminated Asbestos Felt: known as 'asbestos sponge felt', made with asbestos and magnesia.