Currently the most likely place to find asbestos is in buildings constructed more than thirty five years ago. Hundreds of construction products were manufactured with asbestos as a component. But perhaps the most unique feature of this carcinogenic mineral is the fact that any disease caused by a person’s exposure to asbestos may not develop until decades have passed. So the people at risk today for mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer, and asbestosis are generally individuals over the age of 65 who worked in an environment where asbestos products were located, during an era when such products were both abundant and legal.
Asbestos in the Workplace
Asbestos insulation was used for most heating systems in commercial buildings that employed a boiler and hot water pipes. Workers in steel mills and refractories used asbestos gloves and protective clothing. Oil refineries and chemical plants all used heat as part of the production process; those facilities, pipes, valves, and heat generation equipment were insulated with asbestos. The valves and pumps employed there and in thousands of other industrial applications had asbestos seals.
Automobiles were equipped with wiring in asbestos sleeves and with asbestos gaskets, clutches, and brake shoes. Pulp and paper mills used asbestos high-speed belts to carry raw materials through the drying process. Commercial and household dryers had asbestos seals and insulation. Roof tiles, cement, wallboard, joint compound, floor tiles, linoleum products, siding, and cement were manufactured with asbestos exposing almost any building trades professional. Carpenters seem to have fared the worst. These are examples; if you worked in a facility where heat was used in production you were probably working around asbestos.
Asbestos in the Military
During World War II and in subsequent decades through the 1970s the real hotspots for military personnel were Navy ships and shipyards. After the war, merchant seamen had the same high risk of exposure. Ship engine rooms were fitted with asbestos insulation as was any boiler on board and the pipes that moved hot water through the ship. Pump repair, engine repair and ship refitting in general caused thousands of workers to tear out old asbestos materials and replace them. A torn sheet of asbestos insulation is going to put asbestos fibers in the air where nearby workers can inhale them.
Military facilities that were built in World War II and utilized for decades thereafter often had asbestos construction products in them. Because these buildings were actively used it was not unusual for floor tiles to chip or deteriorate, or for cement structures to be damaged and patched. Remodeling of these structures inevitably involved removal of asbestos insulation, flooring, ceiling tiles, or roofing. Once again there was high risk of asbestos exposure if these jobs were done by military personnel. Military aircraft and vehicles of the twentieth century had asbestos brakes, clutches and seals that were repaired by trained service members.
Where Asbestos is Found Today
The principal danger zones for asbestos today are construction sites where old buildings are being demolished or remodeled. An old house can have asbestos shingles, asbestos insulation, wallboard containing asbestos, old asbestos flooring, and asbestos in the cement foundation. In commercial structures there are large boilers and pipe systems that carried hot water to rooms with baseboard heat or radiators. The boiler, the pipes, and the ducts all have crumbling asbestos insulation that must be removed. Some brake pads and clutches are still produced with asbestos; these automotive products produce a fine dust that shop owners are required to carefully control.
Where can Asbestos Be Found? U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Shipyards and Asbestos, The White Lung Association, James Fite