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The Dangers of Asbestos

Asbestos Diseases

by Ashley Barasa

Asbestos has been making an appearance in the media lately, with legal companies advertising the dangers related to asbestos exposure and how potential clients out there in the workforce have been wrongfully endangered. The only problem with this new emphasis to asbestos in the media is that it raises more questions than answers, and as someone who is not in the manual labor field, I assumed that this asbestos information did not apply to me. I was so wrong. There are so many people out there- myself previously included- who don’t know just how much asbestos is really used in America today, the dangerous consequences of using asbestos, or the smokescreens that major corporations have tried to create in order to save profits. Many people don’t even know what asbestos is. My intentions with this paper are to shed some light on a subject that we as a population should all be more aware of.

So what exactly is asbestos? Asbestos is actually a broad term, and it is used to describe six naturally occurring silicate minerals that are fibrous in their structure, and are more fire-resistant and acid-resistant than most other materials. This resistance is what makes them so appealing. In fact, they are also resistant to applied pressure, because when forces are applied to asbestos, their fibers just break up into smaller fibers, and this continues on to a microscopic scale. Because asbestos is so durable and resistant to high temperatures and stress, it is ideal for industrial products. It is often used for insulation, roofing shingles, automotive parts, cement mixtures, and numerous other industrial type products. It is sometimes even used in textiles.

Unfortunately, what makes asbestos so appealing- its properties and chemical structure- is also what makes it so deadly. Remember how when pressure or stress is applied to asbestos, it just fragments all the way down to microscopic fibers? Well these microscopic fibers then go airborne and people exposed to asbestos breathe them in. Due to the microscopic fibers’ small size, the human immune system has a difficult time detecting them, and from here, the lung problems develop into major health issues. Some of these health issues and diseases obtained from asbestos exposure are asbestosis, which is the scarring of the lungs and decreased respiratory function, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the tissue that surrounds the lungs, heart, or abdominal cavities. Even worse, it takes a considerably long time before any diseases from asbestos exposure manifest themselves. It takes approximately 15 years for asbestosis or lung cancer to show, and 30 years for mesothelioma. Keep in mind that the clock starts after just one occupational exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos has been used for millennia, going all the way back to ancient Greco-Roman times. It was noted even back then for its durability and dangerous health effects, for the Greeks had named this material “inextinguishable” and the Romans wrote how the slaves who worked with the asbestos suffered from “sickness of the lungs”. However, the Greek and Roman authoritative figures were so impressed by the properties of asbestos that they ignored the dangerous side effects. Unfortunately, today much of that same behavior is still being exhibited. Likewise, any discoveries of the correlation between asbestos and poor health are more like re-discoveries that we are barely starting to pay attention to.

Continuing on into asbestos’ history, during the Middle Ages and for a considerable time after that, the use of asbestos was in decline. It did, however, make its appearance in the 1700s and became incredibly popular during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. During this time, asbestos was used for lining steam pipes, turbines, boilers, ovens and other equipment exposed to high temperatures. With such a high demand, many cities throughout the United States became mining cities for asbestos or manufacturing sites for asbestos-containing products. The first major production site for the U.S. began in 1894 in Georgia. From this point on, asbestos mining and manufacturing cities continued to pop up throughout the country for the next 100 years. Production of asbestos in the U.S. was at its peak in 1970s, but even then, our consumption far outweighed our production. For instance, in 1973, the absolute pinnacle in U.S. asbestos production, the country consumed approximately 803,000 metric tons of asbestos, of which 718,000 tons had been imported from other countries (ProQuest Discovery Guides; Asbestos in the United States: Occurrences, Use, and Control, 2008).

It wasn’t until the beginning years of the 1900s that people began to take notice that workers who had been exposed to asbestos were dying unnaturally young. There were also an unusually large number of deaths and lung problems in the towns that mined asbestos. Around this same time, in 1924 to be precise, England was conducting research on the relation between lung diseases and asbestos. They came to conclude that asbestos was the cause for their workers’ early deaths and so, in the 1930s, England passed laws that ordered for more ventilation and that declared asbestos exposure responsible for work-related diseases. The United States would not come to these conclusions for another ten years.

Consequently, medical journals everywhere in the 1930s published research articles linking asbestos to lung cancer, but regrettably this critical information was eclipsed when the discovery of silicosis came out. Silicosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust and when the exposed workforces found out, employees collectively sued their employers for more than $300 million. This served as a major revelation for employers exposing their workers to asbestos, but instead of coming clean, they hid the dangers related to asbestos exposure. They continue allowing asbestos in the work environment despite the advent of alternatives such as man-made fiberglass. Their workers were unaware of the dangers they were being exposed to on a daily basis.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that people began to heed the warnings concerning asbestos. In 1986, progress was finally made when the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) became law, requiring all schools to inspect their buildings for asbestos and make the necessary abatements and repairs. It also made it mandatory for asbestos control professionals to take proper initial training, with training once every year afterwards. Then in 1989, the U.S. EPA banned most asbestos containing products, but this ban was overturned by the 5th circuit court of appeals in 1991. However, even with the overturning, some things remain banned, such as flooring felt, specialty paper, and anything that did not historically contain asbestos. Finally, in 1993, the last asbestos mine in the country was shutdown.

In more recent years, the “Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007” bill was introduced into congress in March of 2007. This bill specifically prohibits the manufacturing, importing, processing and distribution of any products containing asbestos, and it also redefines asbestos so that it includes more than 6 silicate minerals. This bill was unanimously passed by the senate in October of 2007, but once it reached the House of Representatives, it lost momentum. The only action the House has taken in regards to this bill was a hearing by a subcommittee in early 2008.

Would you expect that U.S. products containing asbestos is a rare occurrence? Well, think again. Not only is asbestos still being used, but it’s being incorporated into common everyday household products and even toys. You might see it today listed under the label of Chrysotile Mineral Fiber. Chrysotile is one of the 6 types of naturally occurring silicate minerals that asbestos is used to describe, as mentioned earlier (ProQuest Discovery Guides; Asbestos in the United States: Occurrences, Use, and Control, 2008).

If that’s not scary enough, every year, there are on average 10000 people in the U.S. that die from asbestos related conditions, and there are 3000 people that are diagnosed with mesothelioma. That rate of 3000 people being diagnosed every year has been the same rate for the last 30 years (Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program at the National Cancer Institute, 2013), meaning that despite advantages in treatments, there has been no decrease in its occurrence. Additionally, there is still no cure for mesothelioma, and any improvements in the survival rates of people diagnosed with mesothelioma is most often attributed to the person’s age and how early they were diagnosed.

The rate of asbestos consumption in America has dropped from its peak of 803,000 tons in 1973 to 1,180 tons in 2011, but this number is much too high. There are more than 40 countries worldwide that have recognized how deadly asbestos is and have completely banned its usage, making the U.S. one of the only industrialized countries that has not followed this trend. Not only that, but using asbestos effects all of us in the sense that it takes a toll on taxpayers’ dollars. The cost for removing asbestos from schools, offices buildings, and stores runs in the millions of dollars. We need to come together to put a stop to asbestos in our country.

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Last Modified: January 31, 2019

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