Whether for insulation, tiles or fireproof clothing, asbestos was the top choice across many industries for decades. The natural mineral was inexpensive, durable and could resist both fires and most chemical reactions. But as its health risks became undeniable, industries slowly started to turn away from the toxin in favor of safer alternatives.
Today, asbestos can largely be found in its legacy uses in the United States, as the chlor-alkali industry is the only active user of the known carcinogen left. At the same time, certain historic uses can still contain trace amounts of the mineral in their products, like brake linings. As it’s slowly been replaced, for many the mineral has become out of sight, out of mind. But its dangers remain.
Though progress has been made in turning to alternatives, the legacy uses remain. For many, the damage has already been done as they were exposed years ago while the toxin was still actively used in many products and workplaces. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would investigate ten chemicals, including asbestos, for unreasonable risk to public health. A ban on the toxin on top of replacing new and old uses of asbestos with these alternatives could save countless lives from dangerous exposure.
Alternatives to Asbestos
Depending on the application, researchers have found several effective materials that can take and have already replaced the use of asbestos in many products.
One of the most popular alternatives is cellulose fiber, as it has similar properties to asbestos and is environmentally friendly. Cellulose is typically mostly comprised of recycled paper fiber (about 85%) that is then treated with a fire retardant. The cellulose fiber is mostly used as insulation. Experts have found this insulation to provide great benefits like savings on energy bills of at least 20%, rather good thermal conductivity, sound reduction, and cellulose fiber is excellent at preventing moisture and mold. Experts also like this insulation because it can fill hard to reach or irregular areas of the home, like around pipes.
Homeowners and construction workers can choose among varying types of spray polyurethane foams as highly effective insulators. A light density spray foam looks like a sponge, but is semi-rigid, and can easily fill cracks and irregular spaces as it expands during application. It is also a very effective sound reducer. A medium density foam with closed cells can be even more powerful, as it is a more rigid material and creates a sound and vapor barrier. Though this option may be more expensive to install, experts say it can reduce energy costs by about 30% each year.
Amorphous Silica Fabrics
Though this option is typically not used for residential purposes, these fabrics are widely used for applications requiring heat, abrasion or chemical resistance. As such, they’ve been used as protective barriers as well as a form of insulation for many industries, including shipbuilding, power generation, metal work, and aerospace. These materials have, however, been called into question in regard to the potential health hazards of silica.
Thermoset Plastic Flour
Thermoset plastic flour has been used as an alternative to asbestos because of its strength and insulating properties. The thermoset plastic is a synthetic material that is heated to fit the shape and space it’s needed for. The material is filled with wood flour or other similar inexpensive flours, which reduces the cost and helps enhance the insulation, sound reduction, and save on energy costs.
Though a less widely used option, many companies sell flour fillers and extenders, made of natural products like rice or wheat flour. These fillers can aid in insulation and help reduce costs overall. Because they are created with natural, organic materials, there are no health hazards associated with this environmentally friendly option.
Continued Asbestos Use
Despite these and other alternatives for asbestos, the chlor-alkali industry is still holding on. With the release of the EPA’s asbestos scoping document, it was revealed the United States imported 340 tons of asbestos last year, all of which was used by this industry. Though this is a rather small amount compared to the tens of thousands the country used to import and export, advocates see it as an unnecessary exchange as the industry has alternatives for safer production and the mineral should be banned.
In general, the industry has a few options in the method to create chlorine and its by-products, such as caustic soda. Two methods in particular, mercury cell and the use of asbestos diaphragms, have been used for well over 100 years, despite the hazards of working with such toxins. According to the EPA, only 15 plants in the U.S. still rely on asbestos in their operations.
Many have already converted from either mercury cell or asbestos to a newer, safer option called the membrane cell process. Short of a complete conversion, many other plants switched from dangerous asbestos diaphragms to those made of polymers, that show no dangerous health risks.
Experts have stated that the cost and time investment for a conversion may be holding these remaining plants back. Reports state it can take 1.5 years to even 2.5 years to convert the plant from these dangerous processes, and can cost $500 – $700 per metric ton of chlorine produced. In general, the expense may be up to 50% of what it would cost to build an entirely new chlorine plant.
Various representatives in the industry even publicly called on the EPA during a commenting period to consider the necessity of the asbestos diaphragm in their processes, asking for them to avoid further regulations or a potential ban in this instance. The Chlorine Institute, for instance, said there are strict safety standards in place to protect workers from exposure, with continuously updated guidelines. But even with proper safety measures, accidents and exposure can happen easily, and there are no safe levels of exposure to asbestos.
Workers in these industries still using asbestos or potentially being exposed to the legacy uses must educate themselves on the dangers of the toxin and how to protect themselves, as well as understand their rights. It may still take years before the EPA can potentially ban the toxin, and these plants may continue using asbestos until that day comes. Until then, better awareness and prevention are essential.