Prior to WWII, most homes featured plaster walls. However, the invention of sheetrock changed the world of construction forever. Today, sheetrock is the top choice for interior walls in homes and commercial buildings worldwide. Its affordability and fast installation make sheetrock the perfect option for construction projects on tight deadlines.
The first sheetrock was created by the US Gypsum Company in 1916. It came in long, thin sheets of gypsum that was covered with thin layers of paper. The resulting drywall was easy to handle, fast to install, and very affordable. By the 1950’s nearly everyone was using sheetrock for construction projects. However, no one would have guessed that the sheetrock was actually putting lives at risk thanks to high levels of asbestos.
Asbestos Exposure Due to Sheetrock
Sheetrock finishers were mostly responsible for taping and sanding sheetrock. After the panels were hung, finishers would come in and add tape to cover the joints. They might use putty or a mud-like joint compound to cover any gaps. After the putty dried, the sheetrock finisher sanded the wall until it was smooth. It generally took two or three applications to get the perfect finish. The process generated a great deal of dust that coated everything—including the sheetrock finisher.
This dust seemed harmless enough, but it was actually quite deadly. The original sheetrock was made with asbestos, which can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Asbestos was chosen because it is fire retardant and can withstand high temperatures. At the time, no one knew the severe impact inhalation of asbestos particles could have on the health of sheetrock finishers.
It is now clear that sheetrock finishers who have worked with material containing asbestos are at an elevated risk of asbestos-related diseases because they were constantly breathing in dust and debris full of asbestos.
In addition, many other construction materials contained asbestos, only increasing the risk to sheetrock finishers. Asbestos was commonly used in cement panels, drywall tape, wall patching compounds, and plaster. Brands that frequently used asbestos in their products were Imperial Gypsum Cement Plaster, Durabond Joint Compound, Quick-Treat Joint Compound, and Sabinite Acoustical Plaster.
Are You at Risk?
Until the late 1970s, no one really understood the health risks of asbestos. This is due to the fact that even after heavy exposure, it can take 10 to 50 years for symptoms of asbestos-related diseases to develop. Once people began developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers, there was still a period of time where doctors were trying to find the cause. Once they realized asbestos was at fault, lawmakers moved to regulate asbestos, limiting the use of asbestos in sheetrock and other construction materials.
While asbestos is no longer used in the manufacturing of sheetrock, the risk has not completely disappeared. Sheetrock finishers can still encounter asbestos when working on older homes or buildings. Anytime you encounter sheetrock that was installed prior to 1980, chances are high that it will contain asbestos.
Although no cure has been found for the asbestos-related illnesses, doctors have discovered that by using different types of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, or a combination of treatments, they can slow the progress of the disease, providing the sheetrock finisher with a small measure of hope. If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos as a sheetrock finisher, it’s important to alert your doctor so that you can begin routine health monitoring for asbestos-related diseases and get the care you deserve.