Asbestos in Laboratory Equipment & Fume Hoods
Asbestos in laboratory equipment was very common from the 1920s through the mid-1980s. Asbestos materials were resistant to heat, fire, electricity and chemical corrosion, making them the perfect fit for laboratory use. But wearing and handling these products exposed workers and students to hazardous fibers that can cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Learn more about asbestos in fume hoods and laboratory equipment and what you can do if you were diagnosed with mesothelioma.
How Was Asbestos Used in Labs?
After certain asbestos products were banned in the 1970s and regulations were introduced in the 1980s, most companies stopped producing lab equipment made with this material. Today, U.S. companies no longer manufacture asbestos laboratory equipment. However, equipment imported from international companies may still contain asbestos, as there is no complete ban in the U.S.
Employees and students who worked in laboratories from the 1940s to the 1980s, as well as the people who manufactured and installed these products, may have encountered high levels of asbestos.
Types of Asbestos Laboratory Equipment
Asbestos laboratory equipment could be found anywhere in labs where heat or fire were present. While many pieces of asbestos-containing equipment have likely been replaced by now, lab workers can still be exposed by older products that have not yet been replaced like asbestos fume hoods.
Lab equipment known to contain asbestos includes:
- Aprons, gloves and lab coats: Because it could be woven into textiles, many wearables were made with asbestos. In addition to aprons, gloves and lab coats, many labs also had fireproof blankets on hand. Asbestos textiles often released dust, making them especially hazardous.
- Beaker tongs: These are specially designed tongs used to lift and handle hot glass beakers. The tongs were often made of metal, then fit with asbestos sleeves that prevented the transfer of heat.
- Centrifuges: Centrifuges are used to rotate materials at a high speed, which generates large amounts of heat. Many centrifuges were lined with asbestos insulation to keep the materials and the machine cool.
- Chemicals: Asbestos is an excellent insulator and was often used to pack chemicals thanks to its resistance to heat and fire. Today, chemicals are often packed in vermiculite. While this is not a type of asbestos, it is mined from the same places. Lab employees should use caution when receiving chemicals packed in vermiculite.
- Diffuser mats: Pads and mats were placed underneath Bunsen burners and other heating equipment to diffuse heat and protect countertops. Like many other textiles, they often contained asbestos.
- Filters: Microscopic asbestos fibers proved useful in filters, especially for corrosive chemicals that would break down other materials. Asbestos filters were used in many industries during the research and development process.
- Fume hoods: Before the 1980s, nearly every fume hood in a lab was lined with asbestos-containing panels. Because these panels last a long time, this is a common place where asbestos in labs can still be found today.
- Glassware insulation sleeves: In the lab environment, glassware often becomes too hot to touch. Many labs used small textile tubes, made with asbestos, which could be cut and fit over various metal and glassware parts so they could be handled.
- Transite boards: These boards are extremely strong and can withstand high temperatures, which is why they were a popular choice for laboratory bench tops, ceiling tiles, fume hoods and incubator ovens. Older transite boards may still pose a hazard in today's laboratories. One study found that these boards had the highest asbestos exposures of all the items tested.1
- Wire gauze pads: These pads are used in many places in the lab in order to separate, support and protect glassware. They’re also one piece of asbestos laboratory equipment that still exists today. One study that used newly purchased wire gauze pads found they contained between 75% and 85% chrysotile asbestos.1
Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
Those who worked with asbestos lab equipment before the 1980s may have been exposed daily during their normal activities. Biologists, doctors, engineers, lab technicians and lab assistants are the most at-risk occupations, even today. Teachers and students can also be exposed. Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney and Meisenkothen (ELSM) filed one mesothelioma claim in which the client’s work in a lab as a student became a key factor in the case.
Another thing that makes asbestos in labs especially hazardous is that it was often used in materials that were extremely friable. Friable means that a material is easily disturbed, and even normal handling can cause it to crumble and release asbestos-containing dust into the air. Asbestos lab equipment is also handled frequently, which can lead it to break down even more quickly.
When this dust is inhaled, microscopic asbestos fibers can get into the lungs. Over time, they may become embedded in the lining of the lungs and other tissues, causing serious illnesses, including mesothelioma and other cancers. These diseases take decades to develop, so many people aren't even aware they've inhaled asbestos.
The health risks of asbestos exposure in laboratories aren't limited solely to those who worked in them. Lab employees could have brought home asbestos-containing dust on their clothing, shoes and hair, potentially causing secondary asbestos exposure for others in the home.
How to Safely Handle Asbestos in Labs
Asbestos in fume hoods and laboratory equipment is not as common as it once was, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) strictly regulates environments that may expose workers to asbestos. There are also protocols for workers who may have asbestos on their clothing so that they don't bring it home. It’s important to follow these rules and report any employers who aren’t following them.
Today, asbestos in labs is typically found in older products, like transite boards. If your laboratory is planning on repairing, replacing or renovating any benches, countertops, ceiling tiles or fume hoods that were installed before the 1980s, you should first test them for asbestos and asbestos abatement protocols followed. A professional asbestos abatement company can take care of the removal and disposal of hazardous materials.
Legal Options for Asbestos Exposure
Dozens of companies produced asbestos laboratory equipment even after knowing its health risks. If you or a loved one worked in a lab where you were exposed to asbestos and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you should know about your legal options.
Asbestos Trust Funds
Some asbestos companies went bankrupt due to personal injury lawsuits. Rather than settling individual lawsuits, these companies set up trust funds to compensate victims and their families. Asbestos trust funds contain billions of dollars. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the process of filing a claim to receive financial compensation for your injury.
Many of the companies who made asbestos laboratory equipment are still in business, including Arthur Thomas Scientific, Kewaunee Scientific Corporation and Thermo Fisher Scientific. Mesothelioma victims who worked at these companies may be able to file a mesothelioma lawsuit to get compensation. A mesothelioma law firm like ELSM Law can help identify how you were exposed to asbestos as well as the companies liable.
At ELSM Law, we have decades of experience getting victims the mesothelioma compensation they deserve. We understand the life-changing nature of a mesothelioma diagnosis, and will work quickly to research, file and settle your claim so you can focus on your treatment and spending time with your loved ones.
Contact us today for a free case evaluation from one of our advocates.
What are the risks associated with asbestos in laboratory equipment?
Asbestos lab equipment can release dust that contains tiny, invisible fibers. These asbestos fibers are hazardous when inhaled and can cause diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. People who worked with lab equipment before the 1980s, including students and teachers, are at a higher risk.
How can I safely handle asbestos in labs?
If you work with asbestos lab equipment, follow all guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Wire gauze pads and certain other imported products may still contain asbestos. If you're planning on disturbing lab materials that were installed before the 1980s, have them tested and professionally removed if they contain asbestos. Asbestos in labs is less common today, but it can still be found in older materials like transite boards, which were used as benches, countertops and in fume hoods.
Are there alternatives to asbestos in laboratory equipment?
Most laboratory equipment today is not made with asbestos. Some common alternatives include thermoset plastics for molded shapes, silica fabrics and cellulose fiber for insulation, and fiberglass and mineral wool for pads and mats. Fume hoods are often lined with fiberglass reinforced composite panels or fiberglass reinforced polyester instead of asbestos-containing transite boards.
- Garcia, E. Asbestos Exposure in the Research Laboratory. Graduate thesis, January 2013.
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