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Plastics

Asbestos in Plastics and Other Building Materials

Plastics are a group of synthetic or semi-synthetic substances that are used to create a wide range of products. The first plastic, celluloid, was developed in the mid-19th century by an English engineer, Alexander Parkes, who was attempting to come up with a substitute for ivory. This early form of plastic was made from vegetable sources.

The next significant development came in the U.S. during the early years of the 20th century with the invention of Bakelite, a hard form of plastic made from various chemical substances, sawdust and asbestos. The addition of asbestos made Bakelite quite useful for electrical applications. Bakelite was used to make casings for early telephones and radios, among many other electrical components.

Over the years, asbestos found its way into many other types of plastics, including PVC, polypropylene (used for plastic containers and plastic models as well as some synthetic textiles) and nylon.

Plastics containing asbestos are no longer manufactured in the United States, but plastics from overseas sources may still contain asbestos fibers.

Hazards Associated with Plastic Products

Although asbestos-containing plastics were very common for many years, the risk of asbestos exposure to consumers of these plastics is relatively low. Asbestos is not particularly dangerous if it is contained within another material, and for the most part plastic does not abrade or erode the way other less durable asbestos-containing materials tend to do. However, badly damaged, burned, or highly worn plastics that contain asbestos may be a source of asbestos contamination.

Individuals who worked in factories manufacturing Bakelite and similar plastic products were potentially exposed to asbestos at higher levels, however. When asbestos was used as a material in these plastics there was a limited understanding by the public about the dangers of asbestos and many of these workers had little or no effective respiratory protection. Because of this they may have inhaled large quantities of asbestos fibers and could be at risk for developing mesothelioma.

Sources

Sources

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

N/A. "History of Plastics." (http://www.plasticsindustry.org/AboutPlastics/content.cfm?ItemNumber=670&navItemNumber=1117) Retrieved 3 January 2011.

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