Described simply as a binder which sets and hardens and can bind other materials together, what we know as modern-day cement has been around since the time of the Industrial Revolution. Cement has long played an important role in the construction industry and most would agree that life would be a little more difficult without this substance.
Most of today's cement is of the Portland variety. Portland Cement is found in common substances like concrete, mortar, and stucco. It's classified as a hydraulic cement, which means that it expands as it dries in order to fill in little cracks and cervices, which is great for eliminating gaps around such things as water pipes and electric wire sleeves.
Cement and Asbestos
Though cement has been used as a building material for many years, it wasn't until the early 1900s that it began being combined with asbestos. Asbestos-cement products, first manufactured in the United States in 1905, had myriad uses and were lauded for their fire resistance, excellent durability, easy of forming and installation, and - often most important - their low cost.
The proportion of cement to asbestos fiber varied with the manufacturer and the intended uses of the cement. Some asbestos-cement contained as little as 10% asbestos while others might have been as high as 75%.
In the early days, the asbestos-cement was often marketed as an agent for repairing roofs, and companies that manufactured the substance guaranteed that it would stop all leaks. Later, it was used as synthetic roof and wall shingles, corrugated wall and roof panels, flat millboard, and decorative wall and ceiling moldings. Additional manufactured products included water pipes, simulated ceramic bathroom tiles, facings of acoustical materials, electrical switchboard panels, and laboratory tabletops.
Early producers of asbestos-cement products through the first half of the 20th century included H.W. Johns Manufacturing (later Johns-Manville), Keasbey & Mattison Company, Baltimore Roofing & Asbestos Manufacturing Company, Inc., Philip Carey Manufacturing Company, and Flintkote Company.
These and other companies continued to use asbestos in their cement products until the warnings of the 1970s, even though many were already aware of the dangers of the mineral. Records show that company executives had inside knowledge of health hazards associated with asbestos inhalation, but the information was never shared with workers. Many manufacturers of asbestos-cement products have faced bankruptcy due to a plethora of asbestos-related lawsuits stemming from individuals who developed asbestos cancer as a result of manufacturing or using their products.
Throughout the years, those who worked with asbestos-cement products were exposed to asbestos dust on a regular basis. The act of cutting, grinding, sawing, sanding, or drilling these products caused asbestos fibers to be released into the air and, with no gear to prevent dust inhalation, workers breathed in the fibers and, decades later, developed serious asbestos-related diseases.
Those involved in the construction industry (and other industries) should exercise great care when working on a home, commercial building, or other structure that may contain asbestos-cement products. Face protection should always be used so that inhalation does not occur.
Last modified: December 28, 2010.