Plastic is considered a modern marvel of the 20th century, being widely used today in almost every imaginable product. However, controversy over the safety of plastics exists. In certain circumstances, plastics can release dangerous toxins, which endanger those who are exposed to them. Some of these toxins, like BPA or phthalates, can leach into any food or beverages stored in the plastic. However, not all the dangers of plastic are to the consumer. Some toxins were even involved in the manufacture of plastics, including asbestos.
These forms of plastic containing asbestos used the material as a structural reinforcement. The EPA explains that many different materials, other than asbestos, may be used as plastic reinforcement, including fibers, rovings, fabrics, mats, paper, metals, sisal, nylon and cotton. These plastic reinforcements provided tensile and flexural strength, stiffness and impact resistance. These additives also provided resistance to crazing and cracking and reduced the level of plastic shrinkage. The EPA explains that about 2.9 percent of reinforced asbestos materials were made of asbestos.
Asbestos was used in plastics for its durability and fire and heat resistant qualities. Using asbestos in certain plastic products was believed to make the products safer and longer-lasting. Asbestos, which was used in plastics such as PVC, nylon and polypropylene, was also considered a wonder material in its day, before the dangers of exposure to even small amounts of the mineral were recognized and publicized. Even one of the first plastic products, Bakelite, contained asbestos.
Not all plastics contain asbestos, and not all people who use these plastics have or will become sick. However, those who manufactured plastics containing asbestos are at the highest risk for developing illnesses such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. Former asbestos-plastic manufacturers were exposed to asbestos every day when molding plastic for use in various products or when handling damaged plastic products. While asbestos is relatively harmless when intact in the plastic, these workers were in constant contact with friable, or crumbly, asbestos materials and airborne asbestos fibers. These materials posed the greatest danger, since airborne fibers were easily inhaled or ingested.