The Problem of Man-Made Fibers in Construction
Man-made mineral fibers are a family of glass-like products that are non-crystalline in their makeup – as opposed to crystalline fibers like asbestos - and are produced from a combination of molten rock, molten glass, molten slag, or clay. Fiberglass in particular has become popular since the 1990s as an asbestos replacement - but there is some concern that these fibers may be just as toxic. Fibers play an integral role in supporting and strengthening different aspects of construction fundamentals, from fiber-reinforced concrete composites to the variety of glass fiber laminates that are commonly used as window trims or wall columns. Commonly used examples of potentially dangerous synthetic fibers include: polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polyphenylene sulfide (PPS).
Types of Man-Made Fibers
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the most common plastic in the world, let alone construction. Few other materials are as malleable, strong, and consistent. In construction, the majority of PVC is used in pipes and fittings. Other common areas are flooring, cables, and flex tubes. PVC plastic is not the most toxic of the fibers, so it’s removal is not as necessary as other fibers. Usually it is the combination of fibers in a house that leads to an overload of fibers that toxifies the air quality.
Fiberglass insulation is another popular construction fiber. Glass wool batts are slid into walls and ceilings like other conventional insulation materials. It is also used in insulation piping and soundproofing. The benefit to this form of insulation is that it holds heat and limits sound transmission more effectively than other insulation materials. The risks involved in fiberglass pertain to its propensity for moisture build-up that can attract mold. A common risk with fiberglass is that its contents may cause harm to humans when inhaled. Specifically, when fiberglass insulation is disturbed it can release can release particulates into the air that may cause harm if inhaled. Workers should wear gloves, long sleeved shirts, pants and goggles when working with fiberglass insulation, and a number of fiberglass insulation sheets are currently deemed safe for use.
Polyphenylene Sulfide (PPS) is a third popular man-made fiber used in construction. PPS is most commonly used in electrical insulation in the form of a thermal plastic. Like PVC, PPS is more malleable and durable at temperatures up to 200 degrees Celsius, and is extremely resistant to moisture absorption.
The Future of Man-Made Fibers in Construction
While these synthetic fibers have improved the quality and functionality of construction practices since the mid-1950s, there is still much debate about their carcinogenic quality and general health impacts upon human exposure. Even with these health concerns, it is certainly true that man-made fibers and polymers will only become more popular in the construction industry, as study after study is published showing how much more effective they are compared to metal, concrete, or wood alternatives.
The various state and federal labor boards need to do a better job of monitoring the impact of these man-made fibers on workplace safety for both construction workers and general office workers too. In New Mexico, the Occupation Health and Safety Bureau has a number of ongoing studies to test the long term impact of these potentially toxic fibers on workers. For further information contact the experts at GranCor Construction in Albuquerque - (505) 872-0005.