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Asbestos in Tar Paper

Asbestos in Tar Paper and Other Building Materials

Tar paper is a heavy grade of paper that contains tar. It is used in numerous roles during building construction as an inexpensive form of waterproofing, but is primarily used for roofing (in this application, it is also known as roofing felt). Today’s tar paper may also contain fiberglass and/or polyester. This increases the product's tensile strength.

Prior to the 1980s, asbestos fibers were used for this purpose instead. The asbestos was contained in the tar as well as the paper itself. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, increased public concern about the dangers posed by asbestos caused building supply manufacturers to find different products to take the place of asbestos fibers.

Hazards Associated with Tar Paper Products

The primary occupational health hazards with tar paper were faced by the workers who actually manufactured these products and were expected to handle the raw asbestos fiber as it was added during the process. Because the asbestos fibers were bound into the product, the end users - roofers and/or construction workers - were at a relatively low risk for exposure from these products.

Building remodelers and demolition workers who are involved with older buildings were placed at a higher risk, however. Roofing material does not age well, and since most asbestos roofing material that is still present in these buildings has most likely been there for thirty or more years, chances are good that its condition has deteriorated. Asbestos that is aged or worn has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air especially when it is disturbed during situations like remodeling and demolition. Inhaling these fibers has been conclusively shown to be the primary cause of both asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma.


Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)

Gibson, Scott. "Sheathing, Tarpaper and Clapboards." Old House Web
( Retrieved 20 January 2011.

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