By Nancy Meredith
Asbestos is a known carcinogen, a substance that causes cancer, and when airborne asbestos fibers are inhaled into the lungs the person is susceptible to contracting asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. Asbestos was added to a variety of products including insulation, automotive brakes, fireproofing, pipe covering, cements, gaskets, floor tiles and joint compounds, endangering the health of those workers that came into contact with the asbestos fibers.
With a latency period of up to 50 years, many people diagnosed with mesothelioma do not make the connection to exposure of asbestos on the job many years ago. Unfortunately, many of them were not made aware of the dangers of asbestos while they were working with the products even though the health hazards were known as early as the 1920s.
Even after the companies learned about the dangers of asbestos and risk of malignant mesothelioma some still did not issue any warnings to their employees until the 1970s. The companies did not offer protective gear, clothing or guidelines for handling the products containing the mineral. In fact, the worker’s families were also put at risk for developing mesothelioma simply from coming into contact with the stray asbestos fibers and particles that built-up on the worker’s clothing, shoes, skin and hair.
In 1986 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began requiring “Material Safety Data Sheets” for hazardous materials. As opposed to hiding the hazards of working with chemicals, companies are now required by law to disclose information about all chemicals in products having scientific evidence that they pose a health risk regardless of concentrations present in the product.
The Hazard Communication Standard states that “all employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces must have labels and MSDSs (Material Data Safety Sheets) for their exposed workers, and train them to handle the chemicals appropriately.” The mandate further states that employees have the right to know the hazards of materials they work with, as well as the appropriate steps they can take to protect themselves.
Information on an MSDS for an asbestos-containing product may include:
- Potential health effect
- Evidence for carcinogenicity
- First aid measures
- Firefighting measures
- Accidental release measures
- Handling and storage
- Exposure controls
- Disposal considerations
Avoiding exposure to asbestos is the first step in preventing the disease. However, being informed on which products potentially contain asbestos, how to handle asbestos products, and what situations to avoid when working with asbestos are other ways in which mesothelioma may be prevented. MSDSs are designed to provide that information.
There is no known cure for mesothelioma once diagnosed, however, educating the workers and the public and removing risk factors can help prevent contracting the disease in the first place.