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Insulation and Asbestos

Asbestos was included in various types of insulation for decades, thanks to the mineral’s fire resistant properties and durability. Some researchers note asbestos insulation may still be one of the primary sources of asbestos exposure today, as the products can still be found in thousands of homes and commercial buildings across the country.

Insulation and Asbestos

From the mid-1860s through about 1978, asbestos was a go-to material included in a wide variety of insulation materials, from attic and pipe insulation to marinite panels. In addition to building materials, asbestos insulation also lined products like boilers, steam pipes and valves. In general, asbestos insulation can be categorized as loose-fill insulation (fluffy asbestos material often used in attics or inside walls), block insulation (semi rigid slabs of insulation), insulation wrapping (found in products like pipes and ducts) or spray-on asbestos insulation (used for ceilings and walls).

The mineral was a natural choice for its fire and chemical resistance, as well as its durability. Since asbestos was also cost effective to produce, some of these products could contain high concentrations of the mineral. For instance, some millboard products reportedly consisted of upwards of 85% asbestos.

A wide range of manufacturers utilized asbestos in their various insulating products, with companies like Johns-Manville Corporation, W.R. Grace and Company and the GAF Corporation among the top producers. One of the most notorious examples of asbestos insulation was from a brand named Zonolite. The vermiculite for the attic insulation came from an asbestos mine in Libby, Montana, where the asbestos dust and health effects of exposure still have a lasting impact today.

Though Zonolite and the majority of these asbestos products have not been actively manufactured in decades, the legacy uses can still be found in older homes and buildings constructed before 1980. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations allows insulation to contain up to 1% of asbestos today.

Insulation and Asbestos Exposure Concerns

Since asbestos in insulation was so popular, workers in various industries are still at risk of exposure today from its heavy past use. Construction workers, particularly those who install insulation, are among the most at risk, as the majority of asbestos insulation can be found in thousands of buildings, schools and homes.

Disturbance of any asbestos materials in the home can release asbestos fibers in the air, which can eventually lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. Recent reports show that at least 1 million construction workers are exposed to asbestos on the job each year, and the construction industry is the most impacted by mesothelioma diagnoses.

A variety of other workers can also be at risk of exposure from asbestos insulation, including:

  • Pipefitters
  • Boiler repairmen
  • Veterans
  • Oil refinery workers
  • Plant and factory workers
  • Firefighters
  • HVAC workers
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
  • Demolition workers

Workers’ families also face a high risk of secondhand exposure, from any fibers that may be inadvertently brought home on clothes or equipment. Homeowners who own an older home can also be at risk of exposure, especially if planning any renovation projects before having a certified asbestos professional test for the mineral.

In general, asbestos is not considered dangerous if the materials are in good condition and left undisturbed. But since any amount of exposure is considered dangerous, there are asbestos regulations in place to help protect workers and families from exposure to asbestos insulation and other asbestos-containing materials.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for instance, has strict regulations around limits of asbestos at work sites and the safety equipment required to take the proper precautions against the health risks of exposure. The EPA also has laws in place to restrict the use of asbestos, including in insulation products. For homeowners, it's important to contact an asbestos abatement professional to determine if there is asbestos in the home and if its presence poses any potential health problems.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari
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Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Occupational Respiratory Mortality System (NORMS): Industry/Occupation Database: Census 2000 Codes. Mesothelioma, 1999-2012.

Ewing WM, Hayes SM, et al. Zonolite attic insulation exposure studies. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. September 2010;16(3):279-90.

Korda RJ, Clements MS, et al. Risk of cancer associated with residential exposure to asbestos insulation: a whole-population cohort study. Lancet Public Health. November 2017;2(11):e522-e528. doi: 10.1016/S2468-2667(17)30192-5

Spear TM, Hart JF, et al. The presence of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite attic insulation or other asbestos-containing materials in homes and the potential for living space contamination. Journal of Environmental Health. October 2012;75(3):24-9.