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12 common alternatives to asbestos

For many years, people thought of asbestos as a "miracle fiber." It was sturdy, strong and fire-resistant. Accordingly, people used it nearly everywhere--in building materials, brake pads, insulation, paints and textiles. But there was one problem: The fiber was also carcinogenic.

Researchers learned about the risks posed by asbestos many years ago, and the government has since banned most of its uses. Still, companies that profited from the use of asbestos have fought the government's restrictions at every step. And they've done this despite knowing there are safer substitutes for nearly every one of the fiber's uses.

Acceptable materials for nearly every type of job

The government hasn't just known about the dangers of asbestos for many years. It's also known about alternative materials. A 1982 report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewed substitute materials for a broad range of uses, including:

  • Cement sheets and pipes
  • Flooring
  • Paints, sprays and sealants
  • Gaskets
  • Friction materials such as brake pads
  • Insulation
  • Textiles

Even at that time, the EPA found good alternatives for nearly every use of asbestos. It noted that no single material could replace asbestos in every type of product. However, there was a range of materials that could do the different things asbestos had done. And since the EPA published its report, manufacturers have developed even more replacements.

These alternatives include:

  • PVA and cellulose substitutes for asbestos cement materials
  • Aramid fibers, PAN, metallic and semi-metallic materials in brakes and other friction components
  • Fiberglass, wool fiber and polyurethane substitutes for asbestos insulation
  • Glass and other mineral substitutes for asbestos-based fire retardants
  • Fiberglass-based textiles as substitutes for asbestos-based textiles

In short, there are suitable replacements for nearly every use of asbestos. Many of them have been around for decades.

Should businesses be held accountable?

Businesses could have used materials other than asbestos for years, sometimes decades. Still, many chose to stick with the carcinogen. It costs money to switch how you do business, so many simply accepted the risks and kept using asbestos anyway.

And what's the result? Every year, thousands of Americans receive diagnoses of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers. These are largely preventable illnesses, and they leave us with an important question: If businesses have known about alternate materials for decades, why should anyone have to suffer or die due to asbestos exposure?

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