Some makers of wood stoves seek alternatives to asbestos gaskets

''We've phased out all use of asbestos,'' says Bebe Cameron of the research and development department at Vermont Casting, a maker of high-quality wood stoves in Randolph, Vt.

The replacement of asbestos gaskets, she adds, stems from reports of consumer health problems and Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules for employees in the factory working with the material. Some employees refuse to work with asbestos.

At present Vermont Casting uses a metal-covered fiber-glass gasket for stove doors, although research is being conducted on ''high-tech ceramic gasket products, but at the moment they're very expensive,'' Ms. Cameron asserts.

Although asbestos holds up better than fiber glass as a gasket, she says, ''it will probably be banned.''

On the other hand, Tony Anthony, a consultant for the wood-stove industry and owner of Sand Hill Inc., Peterborough, N.H., points out that asbestos gaskets vary in consistency. ''There are some that are very loose,'' he says. ''Most are very, very tightly woven material. I would dispute the fact that you're getting a continual flaking off of the material.

''I think you get a compression of the material, but I don't think you get it floating in the air. It's a very minor situation.''

Mr. Anthony is more concerned about workers who handle asbestos on a daily basis than for the general consumer. ''As far as I know,'' he continues, ''they haven't proved anything beyond the fact that people who are ingesting it or breathing it on a constant basis are susceptible.''

In view of conflicting opinions, consumers may wish to err on the side of caution and replace any asbestos gaskets in their stoves.

Asbestos is a mineral fiber and as such is valued as a fireproof material. In its booklet ''Asbestos in the Home,'' the Consumer Product Safety Commission says that ''there is no level of exposure to asbestos fibers that experts can ensure is completely safe.''

Since 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have taken legal steps to reduce public exposure to asbestos fibers. The spraying of asbestos for insulation, pipe coverings, patching compounds, and other products has long been banned.

Little attention, however, has focused on the asbestos gaskets that line the inside of some wood and coal stove doors. Asbestos materials that are sealed, such as those encased in steel to protect floors and walls, are best left alone.

Wood and coal stove doors are opened at least two or three times a day, causing continual friction between the stove body and the asbestos gasket. It's possible for some of the fibers to break away from the gasket and float invisibly in the air.

If you're shopping for a wood- or coal-burning stove, of course, you can ask the dealer to show you stoves that do not use asbestos rope for door gaskets.

If you already have a stove and it contains asbestos gaskets, you can replace the asbestos if you're methodical and careful. Your objective should be to reduce the chance of free-floating fibers as much as possible.

Since asbestos fibers may break off and remain in the house, you may wish to take the stove outside before you work on it. If this is impractical, open the stove door and, with a mist sprayer, douse the gasket with water. This helps to confine the fibers, since they are less likely to break way with the weight of water.

Next, slip a large, heavy-duty, undamaged plastic bag over the opened door. Put on disposable plastic gloves and an old shirt to cover your arms.

With a screwdriver, pry the asbestos from the gasket groove, working all the time inside the plastic bag.

When the asbestos rope is removed from the door, carefully take off the encasing plastic bag. Take the bag outdoors and seal it with the asbestos inside.

Place another bag over the stove door and, with a wet sponge, clean the groove so as to pick up any residue.

Good-quality stove dealers now carry rolls of various sizes of fiber-glass rope for door gaskets. High-heat-resisting glue, designed specifically for such stoves, is also available. Simply apply the glue to the inside door groove, insert the fiber-glass rope, and allow it to dry and seal.

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