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Asbestos is still in use and still a threat

If you thought that the danger of asbestos exposure was a thing of the past, some of these facts may shock you. If you believed that the EPA’s declaration that asbestos is a hazardous substance means that it is no longer used in this country, you’ve been misinformed. Though the Environmental Protection Agency declared asbestos a hazardous air pollutant in the 1970s, it continued to be used for many applications, and is still used in some 3,000 products today. Those products include home construction products, insulation, flooring materials, friction products like brake and clutch linings, and textile products.

For the most part, products that contain asbestos today use a type of asbestos called chrysotile, which is considered far less dangerous than the old amphibole type.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that approximately 1.3 million workers are exposed to ‘significant’ levels of asbestos on the job today. Workers who are still exposed to asbestos in the workplace include those involved in construction, demolition and renovation of buildings as well as those who are involved in the manufacture of asbestos containing products (including textiles, insulation, building materials and friction products), and mechanics involved in brake and clutch repair.

According to asbestos experts, the asbestos used in products being manufactured today and the manufacturing process itself is safe, because of improved processes. The workers are protected by safety equipment that includes face masks, air filters that remove any asbestos fibers from the air, and in some cases uniforms that are donned at work, removed at work and laundered or disposed of by the company. Workers may be required to shower before leaving the work site to prevent them from bringing home any asbestos fibers clinging to their hair, skin or clothing. Also, workplaces are monitored for the amount of asbestos in the air. However, it does still happen that companies fail to adhere to these practices and place their workers at risk.

Products are now required to have the asbestos bound into the material itself so that loose fibers are not released into the air, to help protect consumers, but in 2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning to consumers about products that contain asbestos. That warning can be found on the CPSC web site. That consumer safety alert (#5080) lists a number of product categories that contain asbestos, and states that they are still being sold and may be in people’s homes.

The list of asbestos-containing products still in use includes: asbestos paper and millboard, asbestos cement sheet, dry-mix asbestos furnace or boiler cement, asbestos wood/coal stove door gaskets, asbestos stove mats and iron rests, hot air furnace duct connectors containing asbestos, asbestos laboratory gloves and pads and bulk asbestos fibers. In addition to those products listed in the CPSC Consumer Safety Alert, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration both maintain partial lists of the type of products that still contain asbestos today. Those lists include: cement pipes, cement wallboard, cement siding, boiler insulation, elevator brake shoes, HVAC insulation, asphalt and vinyl floor tiles, vinyl sheet flooring, flooring backings, flooring glues (carpet, floor tile, ceiling tile, etc), decorative plaster, acoustical plaster, textured paints, chalkboards, electrical insulation, roofing shingles, packing materials, fire doors, base flashing, roofing felt, fireproofing materials, caulking and putties, wallboard, fire blankets, joint compounds, laboratory hoods and table tops, high temperature gaskets, vinyl wall coverings, fire curtains and spackling compounds.

The most frightening thing about the lists above is that most of them are under no labeling requirements. Of all those, only asbestos paper and millboard, which is sold unwrapped, must be labeled as containing asbestos. The rest are often only labeled with the manufacturer’s name and product name. Consumers have no way of knowing that they are buying a product that contains asbestos.

Even where non-asbestos-containing alternatives exist, consumers don’t get to make the choice to use them because they don’t know which products contain asbestos. Despite manufacturers’ claims that the chrysolite asbestos used in these products is safer, and that the products present no risk to those using them, labeling should be required on products that contain asbestos.

Why asbestos still isn’t banned

In 1971, after decades of reports about the hazards of asbestos, the EPA and OSHA began to restrict the use of asbestos in products. The first efforts were to set standards for emissions of asbestos fibers in the air and to create guidelines and restrictions for the handling of and exposure to asbestos in the workplace.

By 1979, actions and announcements by the EPA made it clear that a total ban on products containing asbestos was a strong possibility. At that point, asbestos producers and the Canadian government began to pressure the Reagan administration to rein in the EPA’s plans. In 1984, the EPA announced that asbestos-related matters and bans would be handled by OSHA and the CPSC, then changed its mind in 1985 after their own employees raised an outcry about the move.

In 1989, the EPA announced that it would phase out and eventually ban up to 94% of all products containing asbestos from use in the United States. The decision was the culmination of over a decade of research.

In the words of the EPA, “asbestos is a human carcinogen and is one of the most hazardous substances to which humans are exposed in both occupational and non-occupational settings.” (54 Fed. Reg. 29,460, at 29,468 (1989).

The asbestos industry almost immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s ban on a number of fronts. In 1991, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ban despite acknowledging that asbestos is a known carcinogen at any level of exposure. The EPA made the decision not to appeal that decision, and abandoned the ban. Political pressures brought by the companies that are already responsible for thousands of deaths a year have left the door open to even more deaths caused by exposure to one of the worst known carcinogens.

What you can do about asbestos

Asbestos is a ticking time bomb. Once inhaled, it can stay in your body for up to 50 years without presenting any symptoms at all. To date, there have been no effective treatments for those who develop asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer or pleural plaques due to asbestos exposure in the past. Even early detection doesn’t seem to offer any degree of protection, since we have yet to find ways to prevent these diseases from progressing.

It may be too late to help those who have already been exposed – but we can prevent our children and theirs from facing the same illnesses in the future. The solution lies in demanding appropriate handling, labeling and the eventual ban of products that contain asbestos – as well as adequate funding for research into cures and preventive strategies for those who have already been exposed.

Contact your local and state representatives and ask about their stand on asbestos-related issues, and support lawmakers who support your right to breathe clean air.

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