That Gunky Stuff In the Rafters At Work
You or a loved one receives a diagnosis of mesothelioma. Your brain scrambles for an explanation. How could this have happened? Where could I (or my parent) possibly have come into contact with enough asbestos to cause such an awful disease? Sadly, those with a propensity for mesothelioma need only encounter a single exposure to asbestos fiber to eventually succumb to the ravages of this deadly cancer.
Did your loved one spend his career working in an industrial plant like a chemical refinery or a steel mill? It is not hard to see how years of exposure to asbestos fibers could cause asbestos disease as heavily insulated pipelines, boilers and furnaces were continually repaired and maintained, spewing fibers into the air everyone breathed.
But what of the commercial worker? What of the carpenter, plumber, electrician, painter and laborer who helped build office towers, apartment buildings, supermarkets and department stores through the second half of the 1900s? And what of the office workers who occupied those buildings after they were constructed? How were they exposed to asbestos fibers? Today we’ll explore the intricacies of fireproofing, a product common to almost all commercial structures. Fireproofing contained asbestos from the late 1950s through the mid 1970s.
What it looked like: A dry, fluffy substance, like cotton or wool, fireproofing was packaged in 40- or 50-pound sacks. The bags of dry fiber were dumped into a hopper, mixed with liquid adhesive and then sprayed through a nozzle onto a structural surface, where the moistened fiber dried and hung in gunky, gray clumps. Surely you have seen fireproofing stuck to I-beams, ceilings and ventilation ducts as you looked up into the unfinished rafters of any commercial establishment, big box store or parking garage.
How it was applied: Fireproofing was sprayed onto the structural framework of most commercial buildings, before the finish work was done, in order to delay collapse of a building in the event of fire. Usually this work was contracted out to a fireproofing company. Men and women working inside a building which was undergoing remodeling or expansion were exposed as they walked or worked nearby. Were you one of them?
Women were exposed, too! It was common for construction to be ongoing, especially in the 1960s, when women began to flood the workplace in record numbers. Suddenly industrial sites needed separate break rooms and bathrooms and shower facilities for women. Commercial buildings were remodeled and expanded.
Who did the work: Contractors were usually brought in to spray fireproofing. The work was messy and dusty That gunky stuff flew everywhere! Plastic sheeting was often put up to contain the mess when office workers were nearby. But not always. Frequently other construction was also going on at the same time. Sheetrock workers, floor tile installers, any number of trades might have been helping to remodel a commercial building using asbestos-containing materials while office workers toiled away in close proximity.
How you were exposed to fireproofing: Through it all, fireproofing clung loosely to the building’s internal framework. It was accidentally brushed up against by workers passing by with their equipment. It was purposely scraped off by workers preparing to add on to an existing structure. And it was sprayed anew onto the freshly constructed I-beams and ceilings during expansions, as well as over areas where it had worn or been scratched away. Every time fireproofing was applied or disturbed in any way, asbestos fibers were released into the air, where they were inhaled by passersby or workers in the vicinity. Were you one of them? Was one of your parents?
Nowadays, fireproofing no longer contains asbestos fiber. But for well over two decades in the middle of the last century, asbestos-containing fireproofing was everywhere, lurking just behind the finished walls and ceilings of many commercial and industrial buildings. And, amazingly, asbestos is still not banned in the United States!