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How Asbestos Went from Miracle Mineral to Deadly Fiber

Asbestos has never been “safe.” The problem is the public at large knew very little about asbestos and the dangers of exposure until mesothelioma cases began to skyrocket in the late 1970s through the mid-1990s. However, according to Constructonomics (a construction industry publication), doctors and researchers in Germany already knew about an “asbestos-related cancer” as early as the late 1930s, but American and British doctors were reluctant publicly criticize what was being touted as the “miracle mineral.” German doctors were not. In fact, the Deutschland medical community was so convinced that asbestos had carcinogenic properties, asbestos-related diseases were deemed compensable.

Unfortunately, American and British doctors didn’t fully come to terms with what would soon become an epidemic until the 1960s, when debilitating diseases such as mesothelioma “were firmly established as being caused by asbestos exposure.” By this time, however, it is believed that thousands of people were either dying from or in varying stages of developing mesothelioma—they just didn’t know it yet. To understand why it took so long to regulate asbestos use and inform the public about any associated diseases, you have to explore the history and uses of the mineral.

Asbestos was known as the “miracle mineral” for a reason. Thanks to remarkable heat and fire resistance properties, paired with incredible durability, asbestos was used almost exclusively in shipbuilding in the U.S. during the 1940s for fireproofing and as an insulator. It is estimated that more than 2,700 ships built during this time contained tremendous amounts of asbestos. In the years following, the fiber found its way into more than 3,000 consumer and industrial products from automotive parts to building materials. It was even found in some of the unlikeliest places. Cosmetic talcum powder is just one. Simply put, the asbestos industry was booming, employing hundreds of thousands of workers across the U.S., and raking in billions.

In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally issued its first asbestos ban on spray-applied surfacing asbestos-containing material for fireproofing/insulating purposes. By 1989, the EPA had issued several additional bans. That year, the EPA issued a final rule under Section 6 of the Toxic Control Act (TSCA) banning most asbestos-containing products. Sadly, in 1991, the 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.

Before the EPA began regulating asbestos, it was believed that most cases of mesothelioma occurred in people, primarily men, who worked closely with the mineral. This means, people thought that shipbuilders, construction workers, auto mechanics, and factory workers were the only ones at risk. Today, exposure to asbestos can occur just about anywhere and in anyone, and secondhand exposure is now a reality because:

  • Factories that produced asbestos-containing products often released fibers into the air, polluting nearby neighborhoods
  • Homes, schools, churches, and other buildings built between the early 1900s through the late 1970s contain asbestos that may be deteriorating
  • Those who worked with asbestos often brought the mineral home on their clothes and tools, in their hair, and on their bodies, thus exposing their partners and children

It is now known that there is no clear safe level of asbestos exposure in terms of mesothelioma risk. Yet asbestos is still legal in the U.S. and nearly 200 countries around the world. And because the latency period between first exposure to asbestos and clinical disease is 20 to 40 years, thousands of people continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. Until asbestos has been completely eradicated, this alarming trend will continue.

If you have been exposed to asbestos at any point in your life, please see your doctor immediately. Advances in medicine have allowed doctors to better evaluate risk factors, administer blood tests that can help detect mesothelioma before symptoms appear, and to treat the disease with better outcomes. This is especially true if the disease is caught in its early stages.

 

Sources

"Asbestos and Cancer Risk." American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 2017. Web. 30 May 2017.

Beckett, William S. "Shipyard Workers and Asbestos: A Persistent and International Problem." Occupational and Environmental Medicine. BMJ Group, Oct. 2007. Web. 30 May 2017.

Hedley-Whyte, John, and Debra R. Milamed. "Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences." UMJ. The Ulster Medical Society (UMJ), Sept. 2008. Web. 30 May 2017.

Llamas, Michelle Y. "A Brief History of Asbestos: When Did We Learn It Was Toxic?" Constructonomics. Constructonomics, 24 June 2012. Web. 30 May 2017.

"Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality --- United States, 1999--2005." MMWR Weekly. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 24 Apr. 2009. Web. 30 May 2017.

Pogue, Paul F. P. "Could Asbestos Be Lurking in Your Home?" Angie's List. Angie's List, 08 Apr. 2016. Web. 30 May 2017.

"U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 19 Dec. 2016. Web. 30 May 2017.