The Thing About Bakelite
We’ve probably all used or seen Bakelite products. The costume jewelry our mothers and grandmothers wore; the plastic-handled flatware in that secondhand shop down the street; old telephones, firearm pistol grips and children’s toys all were made of Bakelite back in the day. But did you know that Bakelite was produced by mixing dangerous asbestos fibers with phenol and formaldehyde?
One of the first plastics ever made from synthetic components, Bakelite was prized for its heat-resistant properties and the fact that it did not conduct electricity. At first, Bakelite came only in dark colors because the wood shavings and asbestos fibers used to strengthen it showed up in the plastic if lighter colors were used. When another company began to make Bakelite from urea-formaldehyde resins in the 1930s, bright new colors were introduced, as well as the marbled designs which have made Bakelite items such as translucent jewelry and poker chips such collector’s items today.
In time, Bakelite plastic was incorporated into all sorts of uses. Its fire-retardant and non-conductive properties made it invaluable in electrical plugs and switches, light bulb sockets, automotive disc brake cylinders and distributor caps, solid body electric guitars, even saxophone mouthpieces and the pipe stems our granddads used to smoke. Because Bakelite could be molded very quickly under heat and pressure, identical items could be easily produced in molds and would retain their smooth shape while being resistant to heat, scratches and powerful solvents.
Union Carbide bought the Bakelite Company in 1939. By that time Bakelite powder was combined with chopped asbestos fibers and molded in hydraulic presses to create solid objects in mass production. Bakelite resin also proved useful when molded into phenolic sheets, particularly suitable as electric circuit boards. After World War II, factories were retrofitted to produce Bakelite using a more efficient extrusion process which increased production and allowed Bakelite to be used in clocks, radios, jewelry, billiard balls, chess pieces and kitchen canisters, among other things.
Today, Bakelite is still produced in sheet, rod and tube form for industrial applications in the electronics, power generating and aerospace industries. Soviet heat shields for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads and spacecraft re-entry nosecones are made of Bakelite and a similar laminated synthetic resinous product known as Textolite, which was also historically impregnated with asbestos. Commercially, Bakelite is still used for wire insulation and brake pads, although most new plastic resin products have not contained asbestos filler since the 1980s.
Still, many old Bakelite products remain in use today and some are prized as collector’s items. When Bakelite products become worn, they can break apart, releasing their microscopic asbestos fibers into the air where they can be ingested or inhaled by someone close by. Electricians, drilling through old Bakelite electrical panels or circuit boards, may have spewed asbestos dust into the air all around them. Likewise, automotive mechanics who blew dust from wheel wells of vehicles with an air hose while changing asbestos brake pads or Bakelite brake cylinders were likely exposed to copious amounts of dust. Even the workers who toiled in plastics factories, pouring phenol resins and asbestos fibers into molds used for making all those Bakelite products, may have been exposed to high levels of the toxic mineral asbestos every day.
While old Bakelite products are thought to contain between 15 and 17 percent asbestos fiber, no amount of asbestos is considered safe to inhale. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies asbestos as a Group One carcinogen, known to cause asbestosis, lung cancer and the deadly cancer known as mesothelioma. If you or a loved one has received a diagnosis of mesothelioma, please contact the mesothelioma attorneys at Baron & Budd to receive a free and completely confidential evaluation. The thing about Bakelite is that it might contain asbestos. Treat early Bakelite pieces with caution, or don’t collect them at all.