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Asbestos in Boilers

Asbestos in Boilers

From the beginning of the Industrial Age in the late 18th century through the early 1960s, boilers provided the steam that powered a number of machines, including railroad locomotives, marine vessels and even some automobiles. Boilers were also used in heating systems for homes and buildings; many boilers are still used for this purpose today. In addition, boilers have long been used in power generation plants to provide power for the steam turbines.

Until the late 1970s, asbestos insulation was used in many boiler components. Most of this was of the white "chrysotile" variety such as was mined in northwestern Montana and parts of New England and Quebec (a thriving asbestos industry continues to operate in the Quebecois town of Thetford). While chrysotile asbestos is less deadly than other varieties, inhaling chrysotile fibers could result in diseases such as asbestosis, a buildup of scar tissue in the lungs, or a hardening of lung tissue known as pleural plaques. Though less commonly used, blue and brown asbestos (called crocidolite and amosite respectively) are far deadlier, and are known to be the causes of asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma (a cancer of the visceral lining).

Shipboard use of boilers was quite common, as coal- and oil-burning ships used steam to generate electrical power and to drive their engines. One of the main suppliers of boilers to the U.S. Navy during the Second World War was Babcock & Wilcox. This company, still in operation and headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, furnished boilers for well over half of the fleet; many of these vessels built from the late 1930s through the late 1940s remained in service through the 1970s and even later.

Asbestos in Boilers Products Containing Asbestos

The following partial list of asbestos in boilers products were known to contain asbestos:

Product Name Start Year End Year
Babcock & Wilcox Boilers
Babcock & Wilcox Steam Generating Boilers
Combustion Engineering Boilers
Foster-Wheeler Boilers
GAF Range Boiler Jacket

Hazards Associated with Boiler Products

Of all industrial workers, boilermakers experienced some of the most significant health risks from asbestos exposure. However, boiler repairmen, railroad engineers, shipyard workers, merchant seamen, naval veterans and longshoremen were also at serious risk for asbestos disease from working around boilers. A large vessel such as a tanker or aircraft carrier could have as many as eight boilers in its engine room. In such an enclosed environment, the level of asbestos fibers could become concentrated, adding to the health risk.


Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)

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