How is Asbestos used?

Asbestos was mined and used commercially in North America beginning in the late 1800s. Its use increased greatly during World War II. Since then, it has been used in many industries. For example, the building and construction industry has used it for strengthening cement and plastics as well as for insulation, fireproofing, and sound absorption. The shipbuilding industry has used asbestos to insulate boilers, steampipes, and hot water pipes. The automotive industry uses asbestos in vehicle brakeshoes and clutch pads. More than 5,000 products contain or have contained asbestos. Some of them are listed below:

Asbestos cement sheet and pipe products used for water supply and sewage piping, roofing and siding, casings for electrical wires, fire protection material, electrical switchboards and components, and residential and industrial building materials;

Friction products, such as clutch facings, brake linings for automobiles, gaskets, and industrial friction materials;

Products containing asbestos paper, such as table pads and heat-protective mats, heat and electrical wire insulation, industrial filters for beverages, and underlying material for sheet flooring;

Asbestos textile products, such as packing components, roofing materials, and heat- and fire-resistant fabrics (including blankets and curtains); and

Other products, including ceiling and floor tile; gaskets and packings; paints, coatings, and adhesives; caulking and patching tape; artificial ashes and embers for use in gas-fired fireplaces; plastics; vermiculite-containing consumer garden products; and some talc-containing crayons.

In the late 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching compounds and gas fireplaces because the asbestos fibers in these products could be released into the environment during use. Additionally, asbestos was voluntarily withdrawn by manufacturers of electric hair dryers. In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all new uses of asbestos; uses established prior to 1989 are still allowed. The EPA has established regulations that require school systems to inspect for damaged asbestos and to eliminate or reduce the exposure to occupants by removing the asbestos or encasing it. In June 2000, the CPSC concluded that the risk of children’s exposure to asbestos fibers in crayons was extremely low. However, the U.S. manufacturers of these crayons agreed to reformulate their products within a year. In August 2000, the EPA recommended that consumers reduce possible asbestos exposure from vermiculite-containing garden products by limiting the amount of dust produced during use. The EPA suggested that consumers use vermiculite outdoors or in a well-ventilated area; keep vermiculite damp while using it; avoid bringing dust from vermiculite use into the home on clothing; and use premixed potting soil, which is less likely to generate dust.

The regulations described above and other actions, coupled with widespread public concern about the hazards of asbestos, have resulted in a significant annual decline in U.S. use of asbestos: Domestic consumption of asbestos amounted to about 719,000 metric tons in 1973, but it had dropped to about 9,000 metric tons by 2002. Asbestos is currently used most frequently in gaskets and in roofing and friction products.