When you say the words “asbestos” and “mesothelioma,” the first thing to comes to many people’s minds is often “isn’t that problem about over?” Sadly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asbestos is still a big public health problem. In fact, mesothelioma and asbestosis, along with other asbestos-related conditions, are still killing thousands of Americans each year.
The CDC report showed 45,221 mesothelioma deaths between 1999 and 2015, even with heavy regulation of the material by various federal agencies. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began regulating asbestos exposure limits in 1971. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became involved, developing standards for the construction industry. These standards covered issues such as proper handling of asbestos-containing materials, and inspecting, renovating, and demolishing buildings containing these materials. The materials include paint, shingles, vinyl tiles, roofing and insulation.
Throughout the 1970s, the EPA issued several bans on asbestos-containing materials. The agency was joined in 1977 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which issued a ban on “asbestos in artificial fireplace embers and wall patching compounds.” The EPA issued a ban under Section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of “most asbestos-containing products” in 1989. One would have thought that was the beginning of the end of the problem. One would be wrong.
According to the regulatory history of asbestos bans published by the EPA, “…in 1991, this rule was vacated and remanded by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, most of the original ban on the manufacture, importation, processing, or distribution in commerce for the majority of the asbestos-containing products originally covered in the 1989 final rule was overturned.”
In other words, Americans’ safety was sent almost back to square one. The EPA history in the above link also provides a list of products that are no longer banned due to that ruling, as well as a list of products that are still banned.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (part of the CDC) provides an excellent educational site on asbestos exposure. Key points from that site include:
- “Today, the populations most heavily exposed to asbestos are those in construction trades.
- In the past, pipe fitters, shipyard workers, military workers, automobile mechanics, and people in many other occupations were also exposed.
- In the past, household contacts of asbestos workers were exposed to asbestos dust carried home on workers’ skin and clothing.
- People in homes and buildings with loose, crumbling, or disturbed asbestos materials can be exposed to asbestos.
- During renovations or asbestos abatement, asbestos materials should be encapsulated or removed by trained and certified asbestos contractors.
- Asbestos embedded in intact solid materials poses little risk of exposure as long as it remains intact and undisturbed.
- Natural outcroppings of asbestos can lead to human exposure in a number of ways.
- Natural and technological disasters can lead to asbestos exposure.”
Given that mesothelioma may not appear for 20 to 70 years after exposure, the CDC notes that the biggest increase in asbestos-related deaths is in those 85 years of age and over. The Center also found that there was an overall reduction in deaths in the 35 to 65 year age range. The most frightening discovery, however, is the fact that there are people under 55 years of age who are dying of asbestos-related diseases. This is so even with the federal regulations that survived the Fifth Circuit’s 1991 ruling.
This latest group of people dealing with asbestos-related disease, often called the “third wave”, was exposed to asbestos largely through building renovations and demolitions. Historically, the “first wave” included asbestos miners and manufacturers and the “second wave” was those in the trades, such as shipbuilders and pipe fitters.
The CDC report states that there seems to have been a decline in asbestos on worksites from 1979 to 2003. However, “20 percent of air samples collected in the construction industry in 2003 for compliance purposes exceeded the OSHA permissible exposure limit [for asbestos].” This is disturbing.
Even more disturbing is information contained in a report on the CDC’s findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on April 11. The report states that “Asbestos production stopped in the United States in 2002, but it is imported into the country to produce chemicals used in manufacturing common items such as soap, fertilizers, and alkaline batteries.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, over 350 metric tons of asbestos were used in the U.S. in 2015.
The CDC researchers write that “[t]he continuing occurrence of malignant mesothelioma deaths underscores the need for maintaining asbestos exposure prevention efforts and for ongoing surveillance.” It remains to be seen how much of that will actually happen given the pro-business/anti-safety thrust of the current administration.
Those who fight for people harmed by asbestos also deal with this uncertainty on a daily basis. Asbestos attorney Justinian Lane said, “It’s unfortunate that this administration either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care that asbestos is still killing American workers. Over 150 of my firm’s asbestos clients have died in the past three years. I’m sure their families would be happy to explain to the science-literate members of this administration that, despite what bought-and-paid-for lobbyists may say, asbestos really is deadly.”
The EPA has published guidelines for consumers on identifying asbestos-containing products and getting them safely removed when undertaking a renovation project.