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History of Asbestos in Roofing

History of Asbestos in Roofing

Roofing materials continue to change and evolve as we gain access to better materials and technologies. Roofing material can vary on types of roofing as well. Whether it is asphalt, concrete, or other materials, almost all petroleum-based roofing materials once contained asbestos fiber. While we now understand the true life-threatening risk of using asbestos, it was once one of the most popular additives for roofing materials.

Where it all began

Asbestos was first developed in the 1800s. First referring to his creation as Eternit, the Latin term meaning “everlasting,” a European chemist filed his patent for asbestos cement roofing shingles in 1893. By the early 1900s, asbestos grew as a top choice roofing product. This is because early roofing material had several serious issues. 

Roofing materials, such as wood shakes or bare asphalt, were highly flammable, the concrete tile was difficult to work with, and metal tended to rust. By 1907, asbestos became one of the most sought-after roofing material additives for making shingles. Asbestos was blended with asphalt to create a product that wasn’t a fire risk and would be long-lasting and durable. For the next seven decades, asbestos roofing products were used across the United States.

Asbestos in roofing material

Asbestos was so well received and easy to work with that it was soon used for more than just shingles. Asbestos was used for roofing tar and asphalt liquids. It was also used for roofing felt and underlayment. Asbestos soon made its way into caulking, mastic, and sealants, as well as roof flashing and vents. In essence, asbestos was soon a component of almost every aspect of roofing and siding in some way. 

Advantages of asbestos

Asbestos became so popular due to its many advantages. Asbestos fibers helped prevent fires that were common with wood shakes or bare asphalt. This made asbestos a popular choice for both civic planners and insurance companies. Asbestos is also lightweight, which solved structural issues for heavy roof loads. Asphalt has long been a popular choice of roofing material, especially in residential areas. 

Adding asbestos drastically reduced fire risk while making asphalt-based roofing more durable and long-lasting. Asbestos had no risk of rotting, rusting, conducting electricity, or reacting to heat. From an installation standpoint, it was easy to work with, widely sourced due to the new factors built to meet demand, and was a low-cost option for residential and commercial property owners. With all the advantages that asbestos seemed to provide, it was an option endorsed by builders across the U.S. as the best material on the market. 

The decline of asbestos material

Asbestos had a long run as the perceived best roofing material on the market. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was aware of the true dangers to human health that could be caused when exposed to airborne asbestos fibers. This threat was especially harmful to manufacturing employees and installation workers. It wasn’t until 1989 that serious action was taken to halt the use of asbestos on any level. The Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule put an end to filling roofing products with asbestos fibers that could cause serious diseases, such as mesothelioma. 


When workers would inhale asbestos fibers, their microscopic particles would become embedded into the lung’s lining, which is also referred to as the mesothelium. These particles would become stuck and stay in a person’s lungs for the rest of their lives. These particles can become abrasive, creating constant irritation for the individual. Over time, scar tissue forms and becomes cancerous tumors called Mesothelioma. The only cause of mesothelioma is asbestos. The risk of developing this complication largely depends on the amount of asbestos a person was exposed to and how long the exposure was. It can take anywhere from 10-50 years for the trapped asbestos particles to turn cancerous, meaning that even today, some may not be aware of how exposure has affected them. 

The takeaway 

Though asbestos had solved several concerns that were common for early roofing material, the long-term effects proved extremely hazardous. Asbestos was once described as the best material available, leading to its rapid, widespread acceptance. It wasn’t until we were able to gain a better understanding of the risks involved that asbestos would be phased out. Today, it is rare to find a building that still contains asbestos. When it is discovered, it requires careful equipment and protective gear to ensure the safety of those working to remove this material. If you are unsure whether your home or roofing material contains asbestos, contact the professionals at Mr. Roof for an evaluation.