Asbestos is a natural fiber that for decades was used in insulation, siding, asbestos floor tile, joint compound, asbestos ceiling tile, asbestos roofing, and brake pads. Asbestos was commonly used in these products due to its heat resistant characteristics and durability. For example, asbestos containing insulation, gaskets, and packing were often used in conjunction with high temperature equipment such as boilers, turbines, steam pipes, pumps, valves, and furnaces. Asbestos containing materials were also commonly used during the construction of homes and offices, as well as on ships and in industrial settings.
Asbestos is considered especially dangerous when it is friable—when it is released into the air—either from being disturbed or manipulated. In the case of insulation, asbestos dust generally becomes friable when the protective casing is cut or damaged.
As realizations surfaced concerning the health dangers that asbestos posed, the need to seek out alternatives became clear. But, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that limitations on the use of asbestos first emerged. It was not until 1989, that widespread bans on asbestos containing products were implemented. However, in 1991, most of these bans were overturned.
Many products that once contained asbestos are now being manufactured with natural and synthetic fibers. One of these materials is a spray called polyurethane foam, which has been available in the United States since the late 1960s and is generally used in roofing materials. Polyurethane foam is ideally suited for roofing due to its ability to control moisture and regulate temperature changes in ventilation systems. It has been shown that this spray does not release toxic chemicals or gasses. While generally found in roofing, it has also been used in flotation devices and in the design of movie theater sets.
Another common substitute for asbestos is thermoset plastic, which is created by heating a liquid or powder and molding it into a desired shape. These plastics include epoxies, polyesters and silicones. Once they are molded, they maintain their shape indefinitely. Their varied uses range from auto parts to electrical insulation.
Additionally, asbestos containing insulation has been replaced with a variety of materials, including fiberglass, mineral wool, cellulose and plastic. Natural materials, such as hemp, sheep’s wool and straw, have also been used. Mineral wool is an ideal substitute as it often contains a high percentage of post-consumer recycled materials and does not require the addition of harmful chemicals to be fire resistant. Similarly, natural cotton insulation is beneficial due to its natural properties and the fact that it requires less energy to produce. Cotton insulation, along with sheep’s wool, is treated with borate to render it fire and pest resistant.
While many advances have been made in finding alternatives to asbestos, it is still best to be prudent before disturbing any building materials, especially those in older homes and buildings. Always check with a certified specialist before removing boilers, floor tile, roofing or insulation. While newer, greener and safer technology is now widely available, research into alternatives to asbestos is an ongoing study.