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Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure for Insulation Workers

Asbestos exposure is a concern for insulation workers due to asbestos in insulation materials. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and was often used as an insulation material through most of the 20th century. Insulation workers, along with heat and frost insulators, were heavily exposed to asbestos on a daily basis and are at risk for asbestos disease, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure for Insulation Workers

  • Asbestos, in the forms of amosite and crocidolite, was used in insulation materials to absorb heat and prevent overheating.
  • There were various types of insulation used in plants, refineries, and many other industrial buildings. All types can present a risk of asbestos exposure to insulation workers and insulators.
  • While asbestos is no longer used for insulation work today, there’s still a risk of “legacy asbestos” in industrial plants built during the 20th century.

Why Asbestos Was Used in Insulation

Insulation is a key component in the construction of homes, office buildings, entertainment venues, government buildings, plants, refineries and more. Installing insulation is a very common trade among Americans and has been for decades. However, it is among some of the occupations at high risk of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that forms near vermiculite, which is the primary ingredient in most insulation materials. Due to the close proximity of the two minerals, they often mix together, which means insulation materials may be contaminated with asbestos. When heated, vermiculite expands rather than burns. Insulation companies used asbestos and vermiculite for their expansive and fire-resistant properties.

The primary use of asbestos in insulation was for hot metals or buildings, such as plants or refineries with hot equipment. Pipes with steam or chemicals in them and connected to another heated structure were also prime candidates for asbestos insulation.

Meanwhile, insulation workers could be exposed to asbestos in these settings. Insulators traveled to plants and refineries to re-insulate piping or other areas of need.

Insulation workers could also be exposed to asbestos in other parts of buildings, including homes and offices. Asbestos was used to insulate drywall joint compounds, floorboards, pipes, ductwork, HVAC equipment, boilers and to fireproof structural beams in homes, office buildings, skyscrapers or all of the above.

Where Did Asbestos Insulation Come From?

Most asbestos and vermiculite insulation sold in the United States originated from the Libby, Montana mine, which was active until 1990. The insulation the Libby mine produced was sold as Zonolite, the brand name coined by W.R. Grace & Co.

Types of Insulation With Asbestos 

The types of insulation with asbestos were:

  • Asbestos pipe insulation/pipe covering
  • Loose-fill insulation
  • Spray-on insulation 
  • Block insulation
  • Blanket/wrapped insulation
  • Insulating cement
  • Asbestos cloth
  • Vermiculite insulation

When Was Asbestos an Issue for Insulation Workers?

Asbestos entered the market in the early 20th century and was widely used for nearly 80 years. It is sensible to assume most industrial plants and refineries built between 1900 and 1980 contain asbestos insulation in some form.

The EPA began implementing regulations on asbestos in the late 1980s, preventing the widespread use of the toxic substance in homes, buildings and consumer products. However, the Libby mine, known for producing most asbestos and vermiculite insulation, remained active until 1990.

Most refineries and plants built before 1980 were – or still are – likely to contain asbestos in some way. This is referred to as “legacy asbestos.” This term describes any leftover asbestos in a building built during an era when using asbestos was embraced.

The presence of legacy asbestos means insulation workers today still face a risk of asbestos exposure and disease. Anyone who worked or currently works in this trade should know the health risks associated with insulation.

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Best Practices for Asbestos Insulation Removal

Insulation made with asbestos can be removed during projects to update homes, offices, schools, hospitals, libraries and other buildings. However, they should be removed by professionals trained to handle and get rid of asbestos.

Asbestos abatement is the process of removing or repairing asbestos from a building that contains the mineral. This could be asbestos in drywall, around electrical wiring, or in insulation for ducts and pipes or in attics.

When duct or pipe insulation in a building contains asbestos, you should hire an abatement professional. They will inspect the area and determine if the asbestos has been disturbed or is flaky, which means its more likely to be disturbed and break apart. When asbestos is contact, it is not yet harmful. It’s only dangerous when airborne fibers contaminate the air after breaking from the insulation.

The professional may just contain the asbestos rather than removing it, but any asbestos in a home, office or another building should be abated because of any future risks of disturbance and exposure. Asbestos insulation can be contained but it’s recommended to remove it.

Asbestos abatement workers can remove insulation that contains asbestos but must follow a protocol. They usually create a plan to safely remove the asbestos insulation and then follow these steps or similar ones:

  • Vacate the building until the work is complete.
  • Seal air ducts, disable the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, secure any areas not being treated with thick plastic sheets.
  • Ventilate the building.
  • Place the asbestos-containing insulation into waste disposal bags.
  • Conduct air quality testing based on state and federal requirements to ensure the air is safe.

This work can be completed in 1-2 days, but it may take longer due to other circumstances.

Asbestos Insulation Health Risks

Insulation contaminated with asbestos can have deadly effects on a person’s health. Asbestos is highly toxic due to its microscopic, needle-like fibers. Any slight disturbance of asbestos insulation can send asbestos fibers into the air, exposing anyone in the area.

Occupational asbestos exposure is responsible for most cases of asbestos disease, including the rare cancer mesothelioma. Any amount of exposure to asbestos is dangerous and can lead to a type of insulation cancer.

How Does Insulation Cause Cancer?

Insulators working in industrial settings could be exposed to asbestos from insulating hot piping or equipment. They would often go when the plant or portions of it were offline since the steel was not hot to the touch.

The disturbance or movement of insulation can cause tiny asbestos fibers to become airborne and potentially inhaled or ingested by workers in close proximity, namely the insulators. If the body does not clear out the particles, then they can irritate healthy cells and turn them into cancer.

Asbestos fibers are sharp. If inhaled or ingested, they can become lodged in the lungs, throat or abdomen, embedding themselves into the organ tissue. This can lead to serious illness, such as cancer. There are several types of cancer caused by asbestos in insulation.

Mesothelioma Among Insulation Workers

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma forms in the thin linings of the lungs and abdominal cavity. These narrow linings can be infiltrated by sharp asbestos fibers, which irritate cells in the linings and cause cell mutation. This leads to a tumor.

In 1990, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 278 “definite or suspected” mesothelioma cases among the 17,800 insulation workers in the United States and Canada. This type of cancer has an extensive latency period, often 20-50 years, which means insulation workers may not show any signs of mesothelioma for decades.

Another study from 1967 reviewed data on 17,800 insulation workers from the U.S. and Canada. Among them, 356 died of mesothelioma by 1984.

Lung Cancer Among Insulation Workers

Asbestos lung cancer is a malignancy of the lungs due to asbestos exposure. The flaky dust produced by asbestos can be easily inhaled, leading to lung tissue irritation. This causes cells to mutate and form tumors, which can grow and spread throughout the body.

Asbestos exposure is the main cause of roughly 7,000-11,000 new cases of lung cancer in the U.S. each year. The only difference in asbestos lung cancer is the root cause of lung cancer – exposure to asbestos.

In 1968, a study reported a significant link between occupational exposure to asbestos and cigarette smoking among 370 insulators in the New York metropolitan area. They estimated that insulators with a history of both exposures had a 90% increased risk of death due to lung cancer compared with never-smokers in the general U.S. population not occupationally exposed to asbestos.

In 1979, they followed 17,800 insulators from 1967-1976. There were at least 429 deaths due to lung cancer. A follow-up in 1991, reported over 1,000 deaths due to lung cancer and increasing risk with age.

Help for Insulation Workers With Asbestos Diseases

Insulation workers have a significantly increased risk for developing an asbestos disease or type of insulation cancer, especially mesothelioma. In the CDC study, almost half of the insulation workers with mesothelioma had latency periods of 30-39 years.

Asbestos is heavily regulated now, but there is a chance asbestos insulation still remains in older industrial settings. The main risk today is knowing where legacy asbestos insulation could be hiding and following safety protocols.

If you currently work or used to work in insulation and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, there is most likely a connection between the two. If you have questions about your diagnosis, contact our patient advocate and registered nurse Karen Ritter. She can answer any asbestos-related health questions. Email her at karen@mesotheliomaguide.com for the quickest contact.

Sources & Author

  1. Dangers of Asbestos Contaminated Vermiculite Insulation In Your Home. Today’s Homeowner. Retrieved from: https://todayshomeowner.com/dangers-of-asbestos-contaminated-vermiculite-insulation-in-your-home/. Accessed: 01/03/2023.
  2. What Does Asbestos Insulation Look Like? Identification & What to Do. The Spruce. Retrieved from: https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-identify-dangerous-asbestos-insulation-4119906. Accessed: 01/04/2023.
  3. Malignant mesothelioma in a cohort of asbestos insulation workers: clinical presentation, diagnosis, and causes of death. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1007965/. Accessed: 01/05/2023.
  4. Pathology of lung cancer among asbestos insulation workers. U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information. Retrieved from: https://www.osti.gov/biblio/7186685. Accessed: 01/05/2023.
  5. Malignant mesothelioma in a cohort of asbestos insulation workers: clinical presentation, diagnosis, and causes of death. BMJ Journals Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Retrieved from: https://oem.bmj.com/content/45/3/182. Accessed: 09/20/2023.
  6. Asbestos and Lung Cancer: What We Know. American Thoracic Society Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/rccm.201305-0885ED. Accessed: 01/05/2023.
Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a 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.