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Asbestos Fireproofing and Fire Resistant Materials

As a natural fire retardant, asbestos was utilized for a number of fireproof and fire-resistant materials. Since the naturally occurring mineral was also easy to mine and produce, it was an inexpensive additive to create various materials that could withstand high temperatures. Many uses of asbestos for fireproofing, like clothing, are still legal today, with limits on the amount of the toxin that can be used.

Fireproofing, Fire Resistant Products and Asbestos

Asbestos as a means of fireproofing has been in practice for centuries, though more modern-day uses have been in practice since the mid 1800s, when asbestos textiles were first utilized to protect people and homes from fires. The mineral was utilized for products like fire bricks for chimneys, fire doors for commercial buildings and ships, magnesia blocks for steamfitting or HVAC insulation, asbestos curtains for cinema, and various types of fire-resistant clothing largely used by firefighters.

One of the first instances of fireproofing materials containing asbestos was roof shingles developed in 1859, which can be attributed to a company that later became known as the Johns-Manville Corporation. The uses of asbestos for building materials as a method for fireproofing quickly expanded and became an industry standard for some time. In 1970 alone, reports show that over 40,000 tons of asbestos insulation was used in multistory buildings as a method of fireproofing.

Though some of these fireproofing materials no longer contain asbestos, some are still legal and on the market today, like some fire-resistant clothing and friction materials. Regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency limit how much asbestos can be used today, but past uses of asbestos fireproofing contained high amounts of the toxin. Some asbestos textiles could be entirely made out of asbestos, like asbestos rope, while other fireproofing products like insulation boards may have 40% of asbestos or more.

Fireproofing Materials and Asbestos Exposure Concerns

Notably, firefighters are among the most at risk for exposure to fireproofing materials. Firefighters could often be found sporting uniforms that contained asbestos as a means of protection. Damage to their clothing could result in dangerous exposure. Firefighters also often face damaged and disturbed asbestos in the buildings, from various construction materials and the fireproofing methods utilized, like fireproof spray that often lined buildings. Cancer, like mesothelioma, is the leading cause of death in firefighters today because of asbestos and other toxic exposures. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma compared to the general public.

Many other industries also face asbestos exposure from the use of fireproofing products, like:

  • Construction workers
  • Oil refinery workers
  • Power plant workers
  • Machinists
  • Industrial workers
  • Veterans
  • Metalworkers
  • Welders
  • Aluminum manufacturers
  • Chemical plant workers

Homeowners can also be at risk if fireproofing sprays, asbestos board or other types of asbestos insulation have been used. These products can deteriorate over time, or can be easily disturbed if homeowners take on any do-it-yourself projects around the home or even plan bigger renovations. There are laws in place for how any past uses of asbestos can be handled and removed, and should only be done by certified asbestos professionals to prevent the creation of asbestos dust.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari
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Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Findings from a Study of Cancer Among U.S. Firefighters.

Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Application of sprayed inorganic fiber containing asbestos: occupational health hazards.