Whether or not you fully understand what asbestos is, it’s more than likely that you have heard of the substance at some point in your life. You might also know that exposure to asbestos can lead to pernicious health issues. Even though asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral, it has toxic qualities that can, indeed, be life-threatening.
In spite of this fact, asbestos was and still is used in numerous products in a variety of job sites like construction sites, mechanic shops, oil refineries, shipyards, power plants, factories, and others. Whether you work in those fields or not, it’s still important to understand asbestos and how it could possibly affect you. This asbestos overview will attempt to provide you with a firm foundation for understanding the toxic substance.
What is Asbestos?
Many people understand that the substance is generally considered bad for you, but you may also ask yourself, “what is asbestos?” Asbestos is the term used for six different minerals composed of magnesium-silicate fibers. Each of the six types of asbestos occurs naturally, and their inherent fireproofing ability has made them valuable for use in commercial and industrial products like insulation.
The six types of asbestos are:
The most common type of asbestos that accounts for between 90 and 95% of all asbestos in most products
The second-most common type of asbestos that is used often in sound-proofing materials
The most dangerous form of the substance, but used in only about 1.3% of all products containing asbestos
Almost never used in consumer products, but can be found in vermiculite deposits
Can be found in talc mines and rarely in cement or insulation products
Very rare form of asbestos that is usually only found in metamorphic rock, not consumer products
There are also two subtypes of asbestos: serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile is the only representative of the serpentine subtype and every other form of asbestos is in the amphibole subtype. The specific dangers of asbestos can vary depending on the type, but all forms of the substance are toxic.
But, what exactly makes asbestos so dangerous? As an example, the main form of mesothelioma (pleural mesothelioma) occurs in the lining of the lungs, which is also known as the pleura. Individual asbestos fibers can embed themselves in lung tissue and other areas of the respiratory system. This, in turn, can cause irritation and inflammation that can gradually result in the formation of tumors and cancerous cells.
Asbestos and mesothelioma are often linked because the substance is the only known cause of the disease. But, asbestos can also cause a variety of other illnesses for the same reasons.
Embedded fibers can ultimately result in irritation that causes any of the following:
Pleural plaques (scar tissue) form on the lining of the lungs causing coughing and difficulty breathing. This can occur prior to the onset of mesothelioma
Buildup of fluids around the lungs
Buildup of fluids around the abdominal cavity (occurs with peritoneal mesothelioma and other asbestos-related abdominal illnesses)
Asbestos can be a catalyst for lung cancer
Asbestos exposure is associated with a higher risk of laryngeal cancer which occurs in the larynx (or voice box)
Risk of ovarian cancer increases with exposure to asbestos which can come from first- or second-hand exposure or through the use of talcum powders that used to be contaminated with asbestos
The dangers of asbestos are well-documented. As far back as the 1920s, the substance was known to have caused respiratory issues. Further studies in the 1950s and 60s linked it to the onset of asbestosis and mesothelioma. Despite this, asbestos was used in a variety of consumer and industrial products at an increasing rate until the 1970s.
Since then, the amount of asbestos in widespread use has gone down significantly, but that doesn’t mean the material is completely absent from everyday life. In fact, in the United States, the substance hasn’t even been fully banned. While it has been illegal to mine for or manufacture the substance for quite some time, it has always been legal to import products that contain asbestos into the United States. In 2016, 340 tons of raw asbestos were imported from other nations.
Because of this, it’s still possible to come into contact with asbestos today. In fact, if your home hasn’t been renovated since the 1970s or 80s, there may still be a variety of products that contain asbestos. As long as they remain undisturbed, those products are generally considered safe. But, if you are planning any sort of remodel, then it is important to reach out to an asbestos removal specialist to ensure that your home is safe. This applies to any building that hasn’t been given an upgrade for 30 or more years.
On top of all this, mesothelioma can take up to 5 decades to fully form, meaning that individuals who were exposed to asbestos in the late 1960s could still be at risk today.
The most common location for someone to be exposed to asbestos is in the workplace. While regulations have limited the amount of acceptable exposure on job sites today, it’s not impossible to encounter the substance in some form. Beyond that, we know that asbestos exposure that occurred 40 or 50 years ago can still cause problems in the present.
The most commonly affected workers include those employed in:
- Power plants
- Industrial plants
- Automotive shops
- Automotive manufacturing plants
- Ships (including Navy vessels)
Between 1999 and 2012, construction workers accounted for almost 15% of all mesothelioma deaths associated with workplace exposure. Even today, an estimated 1 million construction workers are exposed to asbestos in some form each year.
Asbestos is commonly found in construction products like:
- Electrical wiring
Again, asbestos can be found in these products largely because the substance is heat- and fire-resistant and was an effective deterrent to major fires. Heat- and fire-resistance also proved valuable for a variety of industrial plants and factories.
Most facilities of this variety contained equipment that ran at very high temperatures. It was not uncommon to use spray-on insulation coating that contained asbestos to help manage these temperatures and avoid the risk of overheating or fire.
Pieces of equipment and machinery that often used asbestos insulation materials include:
- Gas valves
- Hot engine heaters
Of course, there are many other pieces of machinery in certain industries that could also have contained asbestos. Products manufactured by this machinery may also have been contaminated. This is true in the automotive industry which often produced parts that were laden with asbestos.
Automotive products that often contain the substance include:
- Brake pads
- Brake linings
- Clutch linings
These products increase the risk of exposure to asbestos for employees of automotive manufacturers as well as auto mechanics. In fact, even do-it-yourself types may have been exposed to asbestos through automotive parts.
Shipyards (and essentially anything associated with ships) are also often cited as areas of high-asbestos exposure. Building, working in, and maintaining ships often meant being exposed to high levels of the substance. It could routinely be found in engine rooms to keep the equipment there relatively cool. In a confined space like that, the risk of substantial exposure to asbestos increased drastically.
This is part of the reason why many suffers of asbestos-related diseases are military veterans. Navy vessels were known to have been riddled with asbestos, and many people who served on such vessels in World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War were exposed. Some estimates suggest that 30% of individuals who come down with mesothelioma are veterans.
Exposure during their service certainly plays a role, but they may also have gotten jobs in industries with a high risk of asbestos exposure even after their service.
Despite the fact that asbestos was used in building materials to avoid fires, the substance was not 100% effective. Breathing in charred asbestos material is often more toxic than simply inhaling unburnt fibers. This is why firefighters are also at a high risk of asbestos exposure and ultimately incurring mesothelioma or other related diseases.
It is true that workplace exposure is the most common way to inhale or ingest asbestos. But, there are individuals who develop mesothelioma who never worked at a high-risk job.
Secondhand exposure can occur in several ways:
- Inhaling asbestos brought home by someone who worked with it
- Living close to an asbestos producing facility or site
- Living, working, or going to school in a building with ambient asbestos
Family members can be exposed to asbestos even if they never step foot in a job site that contains the mineral. Employees can bring the substance home on their clothes, and it can then enter the ambient air in the house. Similarly, living close to one of these facilities can lead you to a higher risk of exposure even if you don’t work there. Asbestos can also simply be found in loose building materials in homes, schools, offices, libraries, or literally anywhere else.
Of course, not everyone is going to get sick after being exposed to asbestos. Indeed, there are people who have worked closely with the substance for decades and have shown no ill effects. But, there are also people who only worked in an asbestos-containing facility for a handful of years who ended up with a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Asbestos Ban in the United States
As mentioned previously, the United States is one of the few major, industrialized powers to have not banned asbestos outright. The substance is still allowed to be imported as long as asbestos makes up less than one percent of any given product. It has, however, been completely banned in over 60 countries throughout the world, including in the entirety of the European Union. Of course, attempts to ban the substance in the U.S. have been ongoing for decades.
Landmark studies in the 1960s by Dr. Irving J. Selikoff proved that there was a clear link between asbestos exposure and the development of diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. The Clean Air Act of 1970 categorized asbestos as a toxic air pollutant. It also allowed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the usage of the substance. The Clean Air Act also banned all spray-on products that contained asbestos.
In 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed and began regulating the use of asbestos in the workplace. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 gave the EPA more power to restrict the usage of asbestos in consumer products. Ten years later, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was passed to allow for the inspection and removal of asbestos in educational institutions.
In 1989, the EPA enacted the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPR) which would have banned the substance completely, even prohibiting its importation. In 1991, however, an Appeals Court reversed the ban, suggesting that there was a compromise that could be struck between manufacturers of asbestos products and the EPA.
The next attempt to ban the substance didn’t come until 2002 with the Ban Asbestos in America Act. It was also known as the Murray Bill after its primary sponsor, Senator Patty Murray of Washington. The bill passed the Senate in 2007, but failed to make it through the House. Its initial goal was to ban all manufacturing, processing, importation, and vending of products that contained the substance, similar to the APBR in 1989. Compromises led to a final bill that still allowed for certain products to contain the substance. Regardless, it never became law.
In 2008, the Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act attempted to make alterations to the TSCA by banning more asbestos-containing products. The bill was named after the late House of Representatives member, Bruce Vento, who died in 2000 as a result of pleural mesothelioma. The bill would have also reclassified richterite and winchite (among other amphibole minerals) as asbestos. It also did not make it through both houses of Congress.
In 2016, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed into law and allowed the EPA to prioritize and further investigate asbestos as a hazardous material and carcinogen. It amended the TSCA, granting the EPA more authority over regulating the substance.
Despite this, new leadership in the EPA has suggested halting research into the negative effects of asbestos. That means, the EPA may no longer study the substance in an effort to understand its adverse outcomes. In June 2018, the EPA introduced the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) which requires manufacturers to gain approval from the EPA if they are going to process, import, or manufacture new or existing products that contain asbestos.
On the surface, the SNUR for asbestos sounds like a good idea. Critics, however, have noted that it allows for loopholes in which previously unregulated and inactive uses for asbestos could be granted formal approval. The rule also may allow companies to put asbestos in products without a formal review. The EPA will be finalizing its plans for the SNUR by the end of 2018.
The current status of an asbestos ban in the United States is very much up in the air. Still, it is uncontroversial to say that asbestos is dangerous and that its carcinogenic nature has been known for years.
Unions and Asbestos
Some of the most important lines of defense between workers and unchecked asbestos exposure are unions. Labor and trade unions have been instrumental in the fight against corporate negligence as it relates to asbestos.
Union leaders have assisted in both legal and personal matters, including:
- Compiling witnesses for court cases related to asbestos litigation
- Calling for larger trust funds for victims of asbestos-related diseases and their families
- Providing monetary assistance to families who have lost someone to an asbestos-related disease
- Fighting for larger settlements for victims and their families
- Monitoring working conditions to ensure all regulations are being followed
- Screening for asbestos
- Paying for treatments of asbestos-related diseases
The effects of asbestos have been understood since the 1930s. While it’s impossible to say that every corporate executive knew about those effects, it can be safely assumed that many executives knew that asbestos had a death toll. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for bosses to try to keep their knowledge under wraps as evidenced by secret memos and the doling out of hush money.
Trade unions, on the other hand, tried to let workers know exactly what they were getting themselves into by being exposed to asbestos day in and day out. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were two early unions that drew attention to the growing concerns about asbestos exposure. They tried to expose collusion at the higher levels of companies that sought to downplay the effects of the hazardous mineral. They also hired doctors to provide expert testimony that asbestos was, indeed, a major health risk.
Trade and labor unions have also influenced legislation to some degree. One of the most common proposed ideas for righting the wrongs of corporate negligence is what’s known as an “asbestos trust fund.” These funds essentially provide cash to victims and their families.
Unfortunately, the actual amount of money in these funds is usually woefully inadequate. These trust funds also prevent individuals from seeking out recompense through the court system where they might be paid more appropriately.
Unions are also often on the forefront of lobbying for worker protection. For example, United Steelworkers has spent decades trying to get the Toxic Substances Control Act amended to better protect its workers. This, of course, includes workers who deal with asbestos regularly. Many other unions have worked tirelessly in an effort to protect their workers from asbestos exposure and other workplace hazards.
Union workers are often the most at risk of encountering asbestos because they often work in fields where the carcinogen is present.
Some professions that are at a high risk include:
- Shipyard workers
- Auto mechanics
- Steel workers
Almost all of these fields have unions of which many employees are members. As we’ve noted, the ways in which employees encounter asbestos is different for every industry. In some cases, the substance is located directly in products that employees work with (like electrical wiring or paint) and in some cases the substance can be found in insulation around equipment and machinery.
In any event, it’s probably a good idea to contact your union representative if you suspect that you or a loved one has an asbestos-related illness that came from the workplace. They can help provide the resources and financial assistance that can make this process far easier.
Some prominent unions that deal with asbestos-related illnesses include:
- International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers
- International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO
- International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers
- United Steelworkers
- International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers
- United Mine Workers of America, AFL-CIO
- United Automobile Workers
- Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen
- United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers
- Utility Workers Union of America
- International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives a good idea of which labor unions will have your back in the event that an asbestos-related disease befalls you.
Any asbestos overview would be incomplete without a discussion of how to handle the substance. Of course, the simple solution to that is to try to stay as far away from any product or material that contains asbestos as you can. There is no safe amount of asbestos to which an individual can be exposed. So, if you don’t have to get close to it or touch it yourself, then you should be safe.
Still, handling asbestos may be a requirement if you are working in a facility that contains the substance or you are moving into a house that may be contaminated with it. Handling asbestos may also be required during the cleanup of natural disasters. It should be noted that undisturbed asbestos that is in good condition poses little risk to your health. Asbestos that is old or damaged in some way typically poses a greater health risk because it is more likely to be released into the ambient air (and consequently inhaled). After a natural disaster, it’s a safe bet that most products containing asbestos are damaged and more likely to release airborne toxins.
It is not uncommon for buildings that were constructed prior to the 1980s to have products and building materials that contain asbestos. So, if you are engaging in any kind of renovation or demolition, the building should be tested for asbestos. Disturbing those asbestos fibers can put you at risk. You should also contact an asbestos removal specialist if you suspect that the substance may be present.
Only a certified asbestos removal (or abatement) specialist is qualified to get rid of the asbestos in a home, office, or other location. Under normal circumstances, these are the only individuals who should ever handle asbestos in any capacity. Even if you enjoy a little DIY renovation from time to time, your small project could have dire consequences later in life for you or your family. In addition to an asbestos removal specialist, you should also contact an asbestos removal consultant. The latter individual will be able to independently assess how well the former person did at ridding the building of asbestos.
Again, during a natural disaster, you may not have the luxury of calling an asbestos removal specialist. If you live an area in which natural disasters occur frequently, you should have an emergency kit ready that also takes into account the possibility of asbestos exposure.
Natural disasters that often cause asbestos fibers to become airborne are:
- Harsh wind storms
All of these can lead to the full or partial destruction of homes and buildings and a resultant onset of airborne asbestos fibers. It’s important to have a mask ready if you live in an area where these disasters are common. Purchase a mask that filters out asbestos along with any other airborne toxin you may have to worry about.
If possible, you should also wear:
- Eye protection
- Clothes you can throw away
Again, not everyone has the chance to put on all the proper clothing and protective gear. If you suspect that you have been contaminated with asbestos, it’s always a good idea to similar throw the clothes you were wearing away.
If you ever have to touch or dispose of asbestos in any way, you should always be wearing the proper protective gear. Soak the asbestos with water to keep the fibers from entering the atmosphere. Then, place the asbestos in a garbage bag and seal it tightly. Because it is hazardous waste, it needs to be disposed of in a different location from your regular garbage.
All in all, if you can avoid handling asbestos, take that route. But, if it cannot be avoided, be sure you have the right protective gear to keep yourself safe.