The Rise and Fall of Asbestos Shingles

Corrugated asbestos roofing in the rain
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Asbestos shingle history begins with inventor and entrepreneur Ludwig Hatschek who was born in the Czech Republic on October 9, 1856. Ludwig purchased a factory for asbestos goods in Upper Austria in 1893. In 1900 he succeeded in the invention and factory productions of asbestos cement. In 1901 he patented his fiber cement invention and named it ‘Eternit’ based upon the Latin term “aetemitas” - meaning everlasting. Hatschek patented the process of making asbestos shingles in Europe, and the patent was reissued in the United States in 1907. Ludwig passed away in 1914 leaving his family to continue with production under the company name, Eternit.

In 1904 two production lines were rolling with a product range of roofing slates, honeycomb slates, and facade cladding. They conquered the markets, and by 1911 the production was running at full capacity and products were being exported to Africa, Asia, and South America.

Manufactured from a mix of asbestos fibers and hydraulic cement, asbestos-cement roof shingles were rigid, durable and fireproof. They would not warp or rot and were resistant to damage caused by insects. For decades asbestos roof shingles were considered an invaluable resource offering a superior, inexpensive alternative to traditional roof coverings.

Shingles made of slate or clay were most popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Asbestos roof shingles came on the scene and were instantly attractive being much lighter and less expensive. They were rapidly used throughout Europe and later were in equal demand in the United States.

Asbestos shingles were valued for being fireproof, especially among those living in turn of the century communities where fire spread was a common concern. While not able to match the endurance of slate, asbestos shingles were expected to last a minimum of 30 years, enhancing their desirability. They were also valued for being lightweight which significantly reduced the costs involved with shipping and installation.

The use of asbestos-cement roof shingles was growing at a steady rate in the United States. In the early 1920s, American roofing material manufacturers, Johns-Mansville, Carey, Eternit and Century were all offering some asbestos-cement roofing shingle to their customers. Once it was discovered that colored pigments could be mixed to create a choice of color, the appeal of the product exploded.

When asbestos cement was invented, it was already known that asbestos fibers had the potential to cause pulmonary diseases and it is believed that the Eternit corporations may have known about the potential dangers to health from asbestos cement. Initially, concern was focused on the large quantity of dust in asbestos factories, and these factories looked to improve ventilation as a remedy. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that many major American and Canadian life insurance firms were refusing to sell policies to asbestos workers as early as 1918 because of high statistics of premature deaths. In 1929, the company Johns-Manville had the first claim of pulmonary disease from asbestos. Laws were formed by the Asbestos Industry Regulations in 1931. The European countries caught on first, recognizing the dangers as an occupational sickness. Workers who had once worked in asbestos factories and moved on to other professions began to collect compensation for the damages of exposure.

Papers continued to be published the 1930s and 1940s dealing with asbestosis - a chronic inflammatory medical condition affecting tissue in the lungs caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers - and the number of victims. Even reports on illness from people who had no involvement in asbestos processing but had inhaled dust outside the workplace surfaced. Connections were being made between asbestos and lung cancer and mesothelioma - a cancer of the pulmonary membrane. Still, interest in these clear links was small.

The use of asbestos on the European continent began to decline between 1940 and 1945. Reports still came in from the United Kingdom and the United States with consistent evidence of asbestos dangers. The use of asbestos continued in the United States with the asbestos insulation industry on an upsurge. More victims fell, and additional measures were introduced to limit the concentration of free-floating fibers. Still, the industry resisted because they were concerned with the costs associated with ensuring the protection of their workers.

The harmful effects of asbestos were beginning to be acknowledged, and the introduction of asphalt-based roofing products began dominating in the late 1950s. Finally, in 1989, asbestos became illegal when The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule. This came on the heels of the ban that began in 1985 in the United Kingdom.

Many buildings still have asbestos shingles on their roofs and if they are in good condition and left undisturbed, most times are not a serious problem. The presence of asbestos in your home is not necessarily hazardous unless the material becomes damaged and in turn becomes airborne, releasing the fibers that make it a health hazard. Most state and local ordinances have laws governing asbestos shingles and their removal and disposal by anyone other than a licensed and certified asbestos contractor may be prohibited. State permits are often required, so if you are looking to have your asbestos shingles repaired or replaced, be sure to contact a roofing contractor who will be able to assist you with your area’s asbestos removal laws.