There is a history of asbestos use that dates back to the Roman Empire. In the Industrial Age that began in the nineteenth century, asbestos products were first developed by HW Johns, who went on to found the asbestos corporate giant Johns Manville. Mr. Johns first developed asbestos products just prior to the Civil War and went on to introduce the first range of industrial uses.
Early Uses of Asbestos
Early asbestos exposure for workers occurred in railroad yards and shipyards, where the material was used for insulation and gaskets on steam engine boilers and fittings. Product development expanded steadily as new uses developed for this seemingly perfect insulation material that was impervious to fire, flexible and fibrous to the point that it can be woven into fabric.
During the early years of the twentieth century textile mills were turning out asbestos fire curtains for theaters; asbestos gloves and aprons for workers such as blacksmiths and steel mill employees that worked around high heat; and for an increasing range of residential products including roofing material and insulation for pipes.
Early Health Warnings of Asbestos Exposure
The awareness of health dangers to asbestos workers also developed steadily during the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1930s Johns Manville was involved in several efforts to suppress information regarding health danger to asbestos company employees. One such instance involved a settlement of a case filed by eleven asbestosis sufferers and former Johns Manville employees. Another such instance involved suppression of internal research that showed the health problems facing Johns Manville employees.
Thousands of Asbestos Products
The strongest era for asbestos product development was probably roughly 1940 through 1972. The United States Navy had asbestos insulation throughout every navy vessel they commissioned during that period. Products included asbestos gaskets, insulation for boilers and pipe systems, and uses in fire containment designs that used asbestos as a fire shield in doors and walls.
Asbestos shingles and home insulation were standard products, as were asbestos joint compound, asbestos floor tiles and ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring and asbestos mastics that were used to install flooring and roofing. Home appliances such as irons, toasters and kitchen potholders were manufactured with asbestos components.
On the industrial front, spray-on asbestos insulation was used for steel beams used in the construction of commercial buildings. Asbestos was found to be a great contribution to cement – asbestos-cement binds easily, is tougher and more resilient than pure cement, and provides an element of insulation not found in cement. Asbestos-cement compounds were used for thousands of miles of public works pipes, for building heating installations and for foundations of uncounted structures.
Asbestos Products Pulled off the Market
As the health issues associated with asbestos exposure became undeniable, government agencies (in the United States) began to take notice. In the early 1970s asbestos use was banned for a steadily increasing range of products. At the same time, lawsuits were accumulating against asbestos companies whose employees were finding their health ruined by working around asbestos. In 1982 Johns Manville filed the first of dozens of corporate bankruptcies meant to protect the firm from an overwhelming liability expense due to health related asbestos lawsuits from former employees and individuals who used their products.
Hundreds of Thousands of Asbestos Lawsuits
In its heyday, asbestos could be found in anywhere from three thousand to five thousand industrial and consumer products. It was used in millions of structures, thousands of businesses and affected tens of thousands of lives. We have listed a sampling of asbestos products that represents a cross-section of the business and consumer market niches where asbestos products were, in many cases, dominant.
Asbestos related diseases share an uncommon trait in that the most serious have long latency periods. Asbestosis will typically show symptoms ten to fifteen years after the asbestos exposure that caused it occurred. Mesothelioma cancer, an asbestos-caused malignancy, has an average latency period in excess of thirty years.
The latency factor is a major reason that thousands of Americans are still developing asbestos-related diseases, decades after most products were removed from the market. Asbestos removal from older structures or industrial sites remains a dangerous source of contamination. If you are having respiratory problems and worked with any of the products listed in our products section, you should raise the issue immediately with your physician. You should also consult an experienced asbestos attorney about possible compensation.