Asbestos was used so much and in so many products that it’s safer to assume it was used than wasn’t. The cancer-causing mineral was even part of stuff you wouldn’t expect.

One such product is paint, which became a risk for professional and do-it-yourself painters.

How was asbestos used in paint? Why was asbestos in paint? When was asbestos paint used for commercial and at-home projects? And how does asbestos in paint cause mesothelioma for commercial and DIY painters?

This page provides all the information available about the history of asbestos in paint and the health hazard for painters of all types.

 

Painting and Occupational Asbestos Exposure

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a series of books that listed and explained all substances that were carcinogenic to humans. Of course, asbestos was a no-brainer for inclusion.

The IARC’s 100th volume in this series tied these cancer-causing agents to occupations at risk of exposure. Among the many linked to asbestos? Painters, both commercial/professional and do-it-yourself homeowners or office workers.

In the British Journal of Cancer, painting was listed alongside plumbers and electricians for jobs most at risk of occupational asbestos exposure. Only carpentry surpassed these three trades.

 

When Was Asbestos Paint Used?

Occupational asbestos exposure is the No. 1 method for developing mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused solely by inhaling or swallowing loose asbestos fibers. This fact is well-known today, but it wasn’t in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Electricians, construction workers, insulation workers and other tradespeople were kept oblivious about the threat of asbestos.

For nearly all of the 20th century, this mineral was an ingredient in mixtures and compounds used in trades. It was also applied around electrical wiring, construction components and more. Asbestos is durable and resistant to fire, which made it an attractive commercial ingredient.

Asbestos was also a primary ingredient in many types of paint. This inclusion put a lot of unsuspecting Americans at risk — which they didn’t know until decades later.

Buying or using paint with asbestos is no longer a concern in the 21st century. The practice of inserting asbestos to commercial components was put in the past in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, asbestos in paint was a health risk for decades — and people may just now be dealing with the consequences.

Legacy asbestos may even persist inside the dried, old paint inside your house, apartment or office building, especially if the paint is decades old. This means the use of asbestos decades ago may continue as a hazard now.

 

Where Was Asbestos in Paint Used?

Asbestos was a popular part of constructing houses, office buildings, aircraft, automobiles, bridges and naval ships during the 20th century. While asbestos is no longer used in current paint or for current painting jobs, it may exist in old paint. Any scraping or chipping of paint can disturb legacy asbestos, which is the main cause of exposure for painters today.

Professional painters — whether working on bridges, shipyards, offices or homes — may be tasked with removing old paint and updating the structure or building’s appearance. DIY projects may involve work with old asbestos-contaminated paint.

 

Why Was Asbestos in Paint?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mentions painters on a lengthy list of occupations exposed to asbestos. Exposure occurred because this toxin was often included in the most relevant part of the job: paint.

The mineral is durable and can strengthen paint mixtures. Many companies added asbestos to improve the durability of their paint.

The IARC’s “Chemical Agents and Related Occupations” book said it was “used as a filler to improve the technical properties of paints, particularly those used in shipyards and on bridges.” You could also find asbestos-filled paint for homes and offices. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, asbestos was also found in:

  • Ceiling paint
  • Silver paints
  • Joint compounds
  • Paint patches

Asbestos isn’t dangerous if it remains stable and part of a paint mixture. The issue is this mineral doesn’t always stay intact.

 

How Were Painters Exposed to Asbestos in Paint?

Asbestos is composed of fragile fibers, which can flake off with the touch of a fingernail or soft gust of air. These fibers are weightless and microscopic, which is why they float in the air undetected.

If asbestos fibers are loose in the paint mixture, they can put anyone nearby in danger of swallowing or inhaling the sharp particles. Painters are obviously vulnerable. Before the paint dries, asbestos mixtures were susceptible to breaking apart and escaping the paint mixture. If the fibers got free, they became dangerous.

Loose asbestos fibers can irritate lung tissue and cause lung cancer or irritate the lining or the lungs or abdominal cavity. These linings are made up of mesothelial cells, and these cells can turn into mesothelioma cancer if they are diseased.

 

Mesothelioma Incidence Among Painters

The connection between professional painting and mesothelioma is well-documented. Four European studies showed an “increase in mortality from mesothelioma” among painters compared to the general population.

Two case-control studies — one from Canada and one from the United States — revealed 37 malignant mesothelioma cases among professional painters. Most of these cases were from 1988-1997. There likely have been many more former painters diagnosed in the 21st century.

Mesothelioma has a latency period between 20 and 50 years. Painters who worked with asbestos during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or 1990s might not get diagnosed until the 2020s. Even painters from the past two decades might be exposed to legacy asbestos in old paint and develop mesothelioma in the 2030s or 2040s.

 

How to Avoid Asbestos Exposure From Paint

If you live in an older home or manage an older office building, we encourage you to hire a professional for all paint projects. Your home or office may have asbestos in the paint, and you shouldn’t risk your health.

If you have mesothelioma — or your loved one has recently passed away from this cancer — after working as a painter, reach out to our staff.  We can explain further why asbestos was used in paint for decades, along with why this use was tied to unethical business practices. Email either of our patient advocates — Karen Ritter, RN (karen@mesotheliomaguide.com) or Carl Jewett (cjewett@mesotheliomaguide.com) — to get more information.

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    Sources & Author

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About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is the content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.