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Before federal regulations limited the use of asbestos, many workers were exposed to this mineral while on the job. One major application of asbestos was for insulation. Insulators working with asbestos materials were put at serious risk of exposure and of later developing mesothelioma.
Today, insulation manufacturers have replaced asbestos with fiberglass. While not nearly as dangerous to human health, fibers of glass can still cause harm to the body’s tissues. Additionally, insulators working today may come in contact with old asbestos insulation.
What is Fiberglass?
Fiberglass is a synthetic mineral fiber made of silica compounds. Other names include glass wool, fibrous glass, and glass-reinforced plastic. Manufacturers first started making fiberglass in the 1920s. Fibers in this material are long, thin, and tiny. Fiberglass has many valuable properties. It is flexible and strong. It insulates well and is useful in soundproofing. Fiberglass can also be molded into various shapes.
Fiberglass comes in three different types:
- Insulation wool. This is the insulation batting found in walls of many homes and other buildings. It is used to insulate and also to soundproof.
- Continuous fibers. These longer glass fibers are most often used in electrical insulation. They may also be used to reinforce the strength of plastics and cement.
- Special purpose fibers. These specialty fiberglass materials are used for making lightweight materials.
One of the most common uses of fiberglass is as insulation in buildings, ships, and aircraft. Fiberglass can also be used as a material for car bodies, swimming pools, bath tubs, hot water tanks, pipes, and other products that need to be both strong and lightweight.
Fiberglass Compared to Asbestos Insulation
By the 1950s, the health effects of asbestos began to be discovered. At that time, fiberglass became an obvious replacement. Like asbestos, fiberglass insulates, resists heat, and is strong, durable, and flexible. The fibers of fiberglass are made of glass and created synthetically, while asbestos fibers are natural and form in the ground.
While the health risks of asbestos fibers are well documented, fiberglass is less understood. However, it is known that fiberglass holds some risk, but these are less serious than those associated with asbestos.
Whether or not the fibers of fiberglass could be carcinogenic has been debated for decades. Many years ago, studies with laboratory animals indicated that glass fibers are carcinogens. However, those findings have not been reinforced. Today, research seems to indicate they do not cause cancer. In fact, the National Toxicology Program removed glass wool from its list of toxic materials in 2011.
Fiberglass Exposure and Health Risks
Insulators are most likely to experience exposure to fiberglass and suffer any resulting health problems. Fiberglass is safer than asbestos, but there are still some health risks. As with asbestos, when fiberglass is disturbed, especially during installation or removal, the glass fibers become part of the dust that floats in the air and settles on surfaces.
Insulation workers, as well as others in the area, vicinity may inhale or ingest fibers from fiberglass materials. One of the common impacts of exposure is irritation. Fibers can cause redness, rash, or itchiness on skin, as well as in the eyes and respiratory tract. A worker with asthma or other respiratory illness may see symptoms worsen after exposure. If swallowed, fibers can cause stomach irritation and distress.
While fiberglass exposure is generally not considered cancer-causing, there is no definitive answer. Large fibers are considered non-carcinogenic. However, the impact of smaller fibers is not as well understood. There is a possibility ongoing exposure to the smallest glass fibers could cause them to penetrate farther into tissues. This penetration could cause damage to lungs and other tissues and may result in cancer.
Asbestos Risks for Insulators
The construction industry used asbestos in many building materials into the 1970s. Insulation was a major application for asbestos. In the past, insulators and other construction workers were exposed to asbestos. Many became sick as a result of this exposure.
Today, construction is a safer industry. Asbestos use is limited to few specialty products. Also, laws protect workers, mandating safety training and gear. Some risk remains, however. Insulators working in older buildings may still come in contact with asbestos.
Old insulation may need to be removed. Workers may also need to cut around this old insulation to do other jobs. This older insulation could contain dangerous asbestos. Disturbing it could loosen fibers causing them to become airborne. Without proper safety gear and procedures for dealing with the material, workers may inhale or ingest the fibers.
Safe Practices with Insulation
Insulators and others in the construction industry deserve safe workplaces. This includes appropriate training and safety gear for situations in which asbestos may be present. Workers should also be trained to reduce exposure to fiberglass. Proper gear to prevent inhalation and irritation from glass fibers is also a necessity.
Homeowners and people doing DIY work on older buildings have an increased risk of exposure to asbestos or glass fibers. This is because small jobs are not regulated by federal workplace safety rules. If your renovation project involves insulation, safety precautions are essential for your safety. Steps you can take to reduce risks of exposure to fiberglass or asbestos include the following.
- Wear long sleeves and pants. Clothing should be loose-fitting to reduce skin irritation.
- Wear a hat and gloves.
- Use a mask to avoid inhaling fibers.
- Wear safety goggles for eye protection.
- Ensure adequate ventilation with vents or an open window.
- Wet loose fibers after work to keep them from floating in the air.
- Vacuum your work space thoroughly.
If there is a possibility of asbestos insulation in the home, hire a professional abatement service to check for it. Never attempt to manage, remove, alter, or replace asbestos insulation on your own. This dangerous job is best left to professionals.
Fiberglass materials have improved the safety of the construction industry. Insulators, once hit so hard by asbestos exposure and illness, now work with much safer materials. In spite of this, risks remain. Fiberglass can cause irritation and possible harm. Also, dangerous asbestos still lurks in many older buildings. If you got sick because of working with insulation, contact an experienced asbestos lawyer to help you find compensation for medical bills.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.