Abstract: Engineering Standards as Collaborative Projects: Asbestos in the Table of Clearances

Rachel Maines


The Table of Clearances to Combustible Construction, an American national engineering standard for the insulation of boilers and other heating devices, was established in 1943 as a collaborative project of the insurance industry, fire protection organizations, and the federal government. This standard, published as NFPA 89M, was to have exceptionally enduring economic, legal, and medical implications. NPFA 89M, incorporated into hundreds of building codes at all levels of government between 1943 and 1991, approved as code compliant only nine insulation assemblies, of which eight contained asbestos. The ninth could be used on boilers and furnaces but not hot pipes. Thus, all insulations for hot pipes were, in almost every jurisdiction in the United States before 1991, required by law to contain asbestos. Despite the ubiquity of asbestos in building codes before 1991, all U.S. manufacturers of heating equipment, and most contractors and suppliers in the marketplace during the NFPA 89M period, are now being sued for billions of dollars because of their use and/or sale of asbestos in insulation, gaskets, and seals. This essay addresses the collaborative process by which the Table of Clearances to Combustible Construction became a national standard and its current relevance to asbestos litigation.

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