You went to college. You got a steady job in a laboratory doing important work for a hospital or a chemical plant or a university. The employment was interesting and you were relieved to not be toiling in an industrial setting or at hard manual labor. All those hours of studying paid off with a career that allowed you to wear nice clothes beneath your lab coat. You worked 9:00 to 5:00 and had weekends off. You knew there were risks associated with occasional chemicals you might have encountered in your vocation, but you paid attention and were careful to follow the instructions provided with the protective gear and literature at hand to assure your safety. But what you might not have known is that there was another danger lurking in the lab: the use of asbestos materials everywhere!
Asbestos, a fibrous, naturally occurring mineral mined from the earth, was found as early as 3000 B.C. to be fire and heat resistant. Ancient Greeks named the mineral asbestos, meaning inextinguishable. By the early 1900s, asbestos was widely used throughout the civilized world in all kinds of products, ranging from industrial fireproofing and insulation to building materials like asbestos cement boards, powdered plasters and roof, ceiling and floor tile.
Known since the 1930s to cause lung disease, cancers and eventually found to cause the deadly asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, asbestos was eliminated from most products by the late 1980s. If you didn’t work at an industrial site or in a commercial building trade, you might have assumed that you escaped the danger of exposure to asbestos in your work environment. But technicians throughout the middle of the last century suffered a surprising amount of inadvertent exposure to asbestos-containing equipment in a laboratory setting. Here is a sampling.
Bunsen Burner Diffuser Mats
Where there’s fire, there’s asbestos. From the 1930s through the 1970s, laboratory workers frequently used asbestos pads or mats to diffuse heat on a Bunsen burner when a laboratory product, whether liquid or solid, needed to be heated in a gentle, steady manner. This mat, often woven from pure asbestos fiber, diffused heat from the intense flame evenly across the its width, providing a more precise and gradual rise in temperature of the product being heated. Once worn, these fibrous mats deteriorated, releasing microscopic asbestos strands into the air all around the lab worker.
Due to the microscopic size of asbestos fibers, asbestos based filtering devices were widely used in many industries for the filtration of very fine materials from liquids and gases. Both chrysotile and amphibole asbestos fibers were used in fiber and powder form for filtration of fuel and industrial oils, and were especially helpful in the chemical industry, where asbestos was used for filtering acids and other corrosive and caustic fluids since it was naturally resistant to those substances. In these and other laboratory applications, asbestos filters were generally re-cleaned, acid washed, or purified, and then used over and over again. Eventual breakdown of the screens released the toxic asbestos fibers into the air.
Don’t think that because you had a college education and a white-collar job you were immune from exposure to the hazards of asbestos. Laboratory workers and other professionals had plenty of opportunity for exposure to the deadly carcinogen in the workplace. Asbestos disease has never been the exclusive domain of the blue-collar worker. This terrible killer, and the manufacturers who incorporated it into so many products, did not discriminate.