Cap and Boots (V)

In the previous couple of posts in this thread, where I’ve been taking a look at older houses and some of the issues inherent to them, I looked at lead, both in plumbing and paint. Lead is toxic in virtually any amount, and is definitely best avoided. Those with young children, those who are pregnant, and those who are thinking about renovating need to take lead very seriously. Lead, however, is not the only toxic hazard found in older homes.


Asbestos is a mineral composed of long, thin and fibrous crystals:

There are several types and colors, and six forms of asbestos are used commercially due to their desirable physical properties. What desirable properties? Well, here are the main ones:

  • sound absorption
  • high average tensile strength
  • resistance to fire
  • resistance to chemical damage
  • resistance to heat
  • low cost

Where asbestos is to be used in applications of high heat or fire, the fibers are mixed with cement, or woven into mats or fabric. It’s a wonder-product, a ‘magic wand’:

Another ad, from 1981, and bearing somewhat closer on recent history:

When your life depends on it, you use asbestos. I wonder how those ground zero survivors might take such an advertisement?

Commercial mining of asbestos began in 1874 in a land called Canuckistan (formerly known as the Dominion of Canada), a place of ice and snow and hardy lumberjacks, a place which, according to a recent survey of US high school students in Washington State (see 2:29 of the video), may or may not border the United States – apparently Canuckistan may in fact be a US State. There’s a town in Quebec called Asbestos, the home of what was until recently the largest asbestos mine in the world, the Jeffrey Mine. Currently, Russia produces half of the world’s asbestos supply.

Asbestos found use in a staggeringly wide array of commercial products used especially around the house and home, including, but not limited to:

  • fire retardant coatings 
  • concrete
  • bricks
  • pipes
  • fireplace cement
  • heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets
  • pipe insulation
  • ceiling insulation
  • fireproof drywall
  • flooring, roofing
  • lawn furniture
  • drywall joint compound
  • roofing tars, felts, siding, and shingles
  • vinyl floor tiles, sheeting, adhesives

Interestingly, Kent brand filtered cigarettes used asbestos in its “Micronite” filter from 1952 to 1956 – for health protection no less! As if the product wasn’t bad enough! OMG!:

Stop to think – and you’ll start to smoke Kent. Is that how it works? These ads are so whacked I have to post another one:

If scientists and educators – and all-star NBA guards like it, well….

And let’s not forget good old chlorine, a poison gas which is produced using asbestos in the diaphragm-cell process.

The use of asbestos increased greatly in World War II, and since the 1940’s in particular, millions of North American workers have been exposed to asbestos dust. While asbestos was an ideal material from a commercial perspective, in the early 1900s researchers began to notice a large number of early deaths and lung problems in asbestos mining towns. Inhaling asbestos fibers or dust can lead to the onset of a disease in which cells of the mesothelium are transformed into cancer cells. The mesothelium is a protective lining which covers the internal organs of the body. Therefore, breathing in asbestos dust tends to primarily damage the mesothelium lining the lungs. The disease which results, often many years after exposure, is called mesothelioma. According to a Rand Corporation study, between 1940 and 1979, approximately 27.5 million people were occupationally exposed to asbestos in the United States, and between 1973 and 1984, the incidence of pleural mesothelioma among Caucasian males increased 300%. Mesothelioma is not something you want to catch – chest wall pain, shortness of breath, coughing up blood in the sputum are merely the early stages of the disease, and once it gets to the malignant stage, the prognosis is rather discouraging. Life expectancy for those with the disease is limited.

Here’s an important detail: there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos as it relates to increased risk of mesothelioma. Generally those that have become ill with mesothelioma have done so by being occupationally exposed, or having lived near an asbestos mine or factory. The longer and more frequent the exposure to asbestos dust, the higher the chance of contracting the disease. Current US consumption of asbestos is about 2000 metric tons per yer, which was the daily consumption rate in 1973 (!). Unfortunately asbestos also cross-contaminates other materials, like talc, vermiculite, iron ore and other mined minerals found in the ground near asbestos deposits.

If you use bath talc (or baby powder) (mined primarily in New York state by the R. T. Vanderbilt company), or art clay products containing talc, you may be unpleasantly surprised to find it often has asbestos contamination. In 2006, a jury awarded $3.3 million to the estate of a New Jersey potter, finding that Vanderbilt’s talc was a substantial cause of his death….

Americans dies from asbestos-related diseases at the rate of 10,000 per yer. Asbestos litigation is so far estimated to have cost $250 billion in the US. Those in developed countries may have been led to think that the asbestos problem is a matter of purely historical interest. Unfortunately it is not. While the developed world has vastly reduced its asbestos consumption (yet, still remaining is the legacy from past usage), the developing world has replaced it as a major user. And there is that pesky issue of products which we import without testing from these developing countries, which, like the Chinese milk products contaminated with melamine, or their children’s toys with lead paint, may not be up to domestic US standards – and have not been checked carefully at the import end.

Did the companies involved in asbestos mining or production know about the dangers of asbestos? According to a book on the topic of asbestos litigation in the US by Barry Castleman, Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects (1996, 4th edition), he answer is very clear – the companies knew full well about the dangers. The 900 page work was his doctoral dissertation and has since been cited in judicial opinion by the US Supreme court. According to Castleman’s research, in 1930 the major asbestos company Johns-Manville produced a report, for internal company use only, about medical reports of asbestos worker fatalities. In 1933, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. doctors found that 29% of workers in a Johns-Manville plant had asbestosis. In 1932, a letter from U.S. Bureau of Mines to asbestos manufacturer Eagle-Picher stated,

It is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed.

The evidence – and the lawsuits – mounted as time went on. Did the company, now aware of the problem and grasping it’s moral obligation, leap into action and set a crack team of professionals into the fray to protect worker health? did they seek to find an alternative material in their manufactures? No, and No. In a page which must have come out of the same manual presumably used by the Lead Industries Association of America, the companies involved first strove to conceal the dangers and then to even seek to promote asbestos as healthful:

In 1936, a group of asbestos companies agreed to sponsor research on the health effects of asbestos dust, but required that the companies maintain complete control over the disclosure of the results.” (Castleman, p. 195)

The head of Johns-Manville was a certain Lewis H. Brown, here appearing on the April 1939 Time Magazine cover, with the caption, “Businessman Brown — Public Relations Begins at Home”:

Brown later went on to found a right wing think tank known today as the American Enterprise Institute. He also served as president for another right wing think tank, the Tax Foundation, of which he was a co-founder. Public relations would appear to have a, uh, diverse set of meanings for people like Lewis Brown. Castleman cites a US federal court case (p. 581):

“Testimony given in a federal court in 1984 by Charles H. Roemer, formerly an employee of Unarco, described a meeting in the early 1940s between Unarco officials, J-M President Lewis H. Brown and J-M attorney Vandiver Brown. Roemer stated, “I’ll never forget, I turned to Mr. Brown, one of the Browns made this crack (that Unarco managers were a bunch of fools for notifying employees who had asbestosis), and I said, ‘Mr. Brown, do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they dropped dead?’ He said, ‘Yes. We save a lot of money that way.

It seems that John-Manville’s bankruptcy in 1988 provided much in the way of valuable source material for historians and researchers, most of it formerly closely guarded by the company. How do mofos like that sleep at night? These Asbestos companies are evil enterprises, if I might pull a term out of the bible. I can’t even get my head around it.

For more on Castleman, his testimony to the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in 2007 is worth a look and can be read here. In his testimony, he asks that the US move up to the standard set by countries like Croatia, banning asbestos outright. The day has not come to pass. Washington State banned asbestos in automotive brakes starting in 2014, so I guess that is our cutting edge. And worldwide, asbestos companies still do their utmost to stymie any regulation of their product  -an excellent piece on the subject was written in 2010 on the UK website in a piece entitled “Selling Death“. Not, as you might guess from the title, a cheery piece of reading.

The tough thing about dealing with asbestos fiber hazards in terms of working on older homes, besides the incredibly vast array of products which might contain asbestos, is the fibers themselves are incredibly tiny. A human hair is something like 17~180 µm (micrometer) in thickness, while an asbestos fiber is only in the range of 0.01 µm to 3 µm thick – not even visible to the unaided human eye. Any home built before 1970 in the US or Canada is quite likely to have asbestos products present, particularly in areas where heat was present or insulation was required, like pipe wrap, cement backer board around the furnace or fireplace. It’s also common in ceiling and floor tiles and even in the glue which holds the tiles to the sub-floor. Asbestos is a highly friable material and disturbing it is very likely to send fine particulates and fibers into the air, where they will remain suspended for many hours. Homes built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos for building cavity insulation. Unless a material is explicitly labelled as having asbestos, you can’t tell whether it is present simply based on appearance. It must be tested – in fact, a special type of microscope is required to examine the fibers.

If you have asbestos in your home, and it is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed, then the risks are quite minimal. If you’re contemplating renovation however, it’s a different story. Ideally, one disturbs the asbestos as little as possible.

Personally, the idea of having a bunch of asbestos everywhere in a house, undisturbed as it may be, is not the most comforting thought. Removal of asbestos is a costly option however, and must be handled by those trained to deal with asbestos. Doing even minor repairs yourself, without proper containment and encapsulation procedures, is only likely to exacerbate an asbestos problem. There are Federal licensing requirements to be an asbestos worker, contractor, or project designer, and some states have additional licensing requirements. State requirements for asbestos disposal are also varied, however it is not an inexpensive proposition in many places.

The more you find out about the toxic materials used in ‘the good old days’ it seems the less appealing the idea of a ‘fixer-upper’ becomes – unless one personally has little concern about being exposed to toxic materials. Not me. In addition, there is yet a further hazard which awaits in some homes, the subject of the next post in this series. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

5 thoughts on “Cap and Boots (V)

  1. Chris,

    An outstanding piece. If you weren't such an ace craftsman, woodworker, builder, architectural scholar, you certainly could be an accomplished full time journalist.

    I grew up in a house built in the WW I era. There were plenty of pipes in the basement (where we played all the time) covered with asbestos. Used to knock the shit out of it just for fun.

  2. Very interesting post. During WWII the Army Air Force designed a survival vest for bailout from aircraft. One of the interesting survival items it contained was a collapsible cooking container made out of asbestos. How would you like to cook a stew in that?

  3. Hi Chris,

    We in Canada have been well aware of asbestos' dangers for many years as well and have taken great pains to educate our citizens and gradually reduce its use domestically. But can you believe that our asbestos industry has been alive and well and only recently has the cloak of invisibility hiding these same dangers been successfully parted enough that the Canadian mines are finally closing? You see, while asbestos has been banned from use domestically for years, it was actively exported (and eagerly promoted by our own Government – have to bring in those jobs and votes, eh) to the developing world with little concern for the health of others on distant shores.
    Ah well. Now we are scrabbling to sell our oil and leaving behind a toxic wasteland (have to bring in those jobs and votes, eh).


  4. Tico, thanks, though you do exaggerate greatly. Most of my posts go out with so many typos and assorted horrors that I am often embarrassed to re-read them later.


    thanks for your comment. Not sure I would want to cook stew in a asbestos container, but that wouldn't be the first time that members of the military have been exposed to toxic materials.


    yeah, Canada hardly is the shining bastion of environmental protection these days. That WTC ad in the post above is by a Canadian company. Yep, jobs and votes, bribes and golden parachutes…


    hello again – thanks for your comment. What I'm left wondering after the stuff I've come across recently about lead and asbestos, is what are we being exposed to today under the guise that is is non-harmful and about which we will later find out something quite different? Cell phones and cell towers? Teflon? Certain medications? There are an awful lot of chemicals in use that have never been properly tested. I have no faith that government will do its job policing the business interests, nor any faith that 'market mechanisms' will curtain businesses who knowingly do wrong. Consumers are virtually left to fend for themselves.


Anything to add?