Asbestos Is Dangerous, So Why Are Companies Still Using It?

With a name that comes from the ancient Greek word for “inextinguishable,” there’s no doubt that asbestos has been revered – and feared – throughout history. Used for its fireproofing properties since the Stone Age, its health hazards have also been known, if not fully understood, for thousands of years.

In more modern times, asbestos was largely used between 1930-1980 as a building material in homes and commercial buildings. Its use was officially banned in 1977. It is especially effective as a fireproofing material due to its chemical and heat-resistant properties, and chemical companies are still using it today.

While only three plants in the United States still use asbestos, according to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, asbestos imports into the U.S. were higher in the first three months of 2022 than the total number of imports in 2021. This only continues the increase of asbestos imports into the United States over the past several years.

What Is Asbestos?

Although it is a naturally occurring mineral, asbestos has been discovered to be incredibly dangerous, and is the #1 cause of work-related deaths in the world. The term asbestos refers to any one of these six fibrous minerals, each of which are regulated:

  • Chrysolite, also known as white asbestos
  • Tremolite
  • Crocidolite, also known as blue asbestos
  • Amosite, also known as brown asbestos
  • Actinolite
  • Anthophyllite

Of these six, chrysolite is the most commonly used; it accounts for 95% of all asbestos used throughout the world. Amosite and crocidolite are the second and third most popular, respectively.

Although the IARC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) each classify erionite as a known human carcinogen, it is not currently regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A material is considered a regulated asbestos-containing material (RACM) if it is “friable,” which means that the material can be reduced into smaller pieces with little effort. Friable asbestos can be easily dislodged into the air, presenting more of a danger to those exposed to it than to non-friable materials. In fact, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) specifically does not regulate non-friable materials in schools.

Facts About Asbestos

Did you know?

  • Asbestos can’t be washed out of clothes.
  • There is no treatment for asbestos exposure.
  • There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos as outlined by the EPA.
  • You cannot smell, see, or taste asbestos.
  • Asbestos was first commercially mined in Quebec, Canada in the 1870s.
  • Asbestos can be found in products throughout older homes built before it was banned in 1977.
  • Approximately 3,000 different types of commercial products contain asbestos today.
  • Asbestos is reported as the cause for at least 90% of all mesothelioma cases.
  • As of 2017, the annual global death rate of asbestos exposure was around 237,000.

Who Is at Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

Although many homes and commercial buildings presented asbestos exposure concerns throughout the 20th century, the people who are the most at risk today are those who work with asbestos products.

Occupations that place workers at the highest risk of asbestos exposure include:

  • Electricians
  • Plumbers
  • Firefighters
  • Construction workers
  • Industrial workers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Power plant worker
  • Miners
  • Auto mechanics

People who live with these workers, such as family members, are at risk of secondary exposure, especially from washing a worker’s clothing.

How Long After Exposure to Asbestos Do Symptoms Appear?

Long-term effects of asbestos exposure can take up to 10-40 years to appear, and can vary in severity. In fact, according to the California Department of Public Health, we are seeing the results of asbestos exposure among workers who encountered it during World War II. Medical examinations such as medical history, chest x-ray, and breathing capacity tests may help detect the symptoms early.

Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure has the potential to cause several different types of diseases, both cancerous and noncancerous.

According to the International Agency For Research On Cancer (IARC), asbestos exposure is known to cause mesothelioma, a relatively rare cancer that affects the thin membranes in the chest and abdomen. It can cause other damaging health effects such as asbestosis and lung and ovarian cancers.

Because asbestos remains in the body after exposure, particularly in the airways and lung tissue, each consequent exposure increases the risk of developing these dangerous side effects.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (LCSA)

On June 16, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law. The act equipped the EPA with the necessary tools to promote the safety of chemicals such as asbestos.

More specifically, the bipartisan law introduced:

  • Mandatory EPA evaluations of existing chemicals with enforceable deadlines
  • Risk-based chemical assessments
  • Improved public transparency for information about chemicals
  • Consistent funding for the EPA’s implementation of their new responsibilities

The act was named for a Democratic senator who famously fought the alcohol and tobacco industries throughout his five terms and sponsored the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which suggested significant improvements and amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. Senator Lautenberg died in 2013, shortly after introducing the law.

Six years later, according to Dr. Kimberly Wise White, Vice President of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs, American Chemistry Council (ACC), “the EPA is implementing policy changes that are out of touch with regulatory and economic reality.” She called on the agency to “reverse these misguided policy changes and get TSCA implementation back on track” as part of the ACC’s State of TSCA Report: Fix Implementation Now Before It Is Too Late.

The Future of Asbestos Use in the United States

Despite the introduction of acts such as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act and others calling for the ban of asbestos in the United States, the use of asbestos is once again on the rise. For now, it seems that, according to the companies that continue to use it, the effectiveness of asbestos outweighs the risks exposure to it presents to workers and the general public. To protect our families and their futures, the fight to strictly regulate – and eventually ban – asbestos must continue.

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