Nearly everyone has heard of asbestos, but not everyone knows what it is. You may also know that asbestos exposure can lead to serious and potentially deadly health issues. It has toxic and potentially lethal qualities despite being a mineral that occurs naturally.
Despite its dangers, asbestos was frequently used in a wide range of workplaces such as:
- Construction sites
- Oil refineries
- Auto repair shops
- Power plants
Asbestos had continued to be utilized despite its health risks due to its incredible resistance to fire. Even if you don’t work in one of these places, you should still understand it and how you could be affected by its presence. Our overview provides information that will give you a strong understanding about this dangerous substance.
What Is Asbestos?
While most people understand that asbestos is a bad thing, but may not know what it is. If you’ve asked yourself, “what is asbestos?”, you’re not alone.
The term “asbestos” describes six different minerals composed of tiny fibers consisting of magnesium-silicate. All six of these are naturally occurring, and their fireproofing characteristics made them very beneficial for industrial and commercial products such as insulation. These six types are:
Additionally, there are two subtypes:
Most forms of asbestos are classified as the amphibole subtype, while Chrysotile is always from the serpentines subtype.
So, what is it that makes asbestos so toxic? It’s a result of the fine fibers that make up the different forms of asbestos.
Breathing in these tiny fibers is one of the most common ways people are exposed to asbestos. As a result, the primary form of mesothelioma is pleural, since it occurs in the pleura, or the lining of the lungs. The asbestos fibers become embedded in the lung tissue as well as throughout the respiratory system. The inflammation and irritation from the asbestos fibers slowly and eventually results in the creation of cancerous cells and tumors in the body.
Asbestos is the only known and documented cause of mesothelioma, which is why they are generally connected. However, asbestos can also cause a number of other illnesses in the same fashion. The irritation that the fibers cause can also cause:
- Pleural effusion
- Lung cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Ascites (fluid in the abdominal area from liver and gallbladder illnesses)
- Ovarian cancer
Asbestos’ dangers and ill effects are well-documented for nearly 100 years. It was known to cause respiratory issues as soon as the 1920’s. Additional studies in the 1950s through the 1960’s began to show the connection and causation between mesothelioma and asbestos. Despite this evidence, manufacturers continued to use asbestos in a wide variety of industrial and consumer products at a growing rate until the 1970’s.
Since the exposure of the dangers of asbestos, the extensive use has significantly decreased. Unfortunately, the product is still being used in limited areas. The United States still has not completely banned it as other countries have. Mining and manufacturing asbestos has been illegal for many years, but it is still legal to import asbestos-containing products into the US. About 340 tons of the raw form of asbestos was imported into the US from other nations in 2016 alone. That’s why asbestos exposure is still a possibility in the 21st century.
For instance, if you live in an older home that hasn’t been renovated since 1970’s or 1980’s, the home may still have a number of building materials that contain some asbestos. They are considered safe if they are left undisturbed. Check any building for asbestos that hasn’t been renovated or otherwise disturbed for more than 30 years with the help of an asbestos removal specialist to protect residents and/or tenants from potential asbestos exposure during and after remodeling. If you are planning renovation work on an older home, it’s vital to have someone inspect the home prior to any work to remove, remediate or encapsulate any existing asbestos.
Mesothelioma and other effects from asbestos exposure can take as long as 50 years to manifest completely. This means that anyone exposed to asbestos in the late 1960’s could still be at risk and develop mesothelioma now.
This is the most frequent way someone becomes exposed to asbestos. It’s still likely that individuals could find asbestos and suffer an exposure, even though there are regulations that limit the acceptable amount in the workplace. We also know that workplace exposures that occurred as long as 40 or 50 years ago are still able to cause mesothelioma today.
Workers who were most commonly exposed to asbestos worked in:
- Power plants
- Industrial plants
- Automotive shops
- Automotive manufacturing plants
- Ships (including Navy vessels)
Construction workers were nearly 15% of all mesothelioma deaths from workplace exposure between 1999 and 2012. Currently, some type of asbestos exposure is estimated to affect estimated 1 million construction workers every year.
The reason construction workers are so often exposed is commonly used in construction products such as:
- Electrical wiring
The heat-resistant nature of asbestos is what makes it such an attractive option for homes as well as factories and other industrial plants. Many industrial facilities had equipment that would reach high temperatures during operations. Spray-on insulation coatings containing asbestos was useful to avoid the risk of fire or overheating when the machines were running, including:
- Gas valves
- Hot engine heaters
These are just some of the things that could contain asbestos, and there are likely many others.
This also means that any products that were manufactured by this contaminated machinery could also have asbestos contamination, particularly the automotive industry. Many auto parts were loaded with asbestos, such as:
- Brake pads
- Brake linings
- Clutch linings
Both auto mechanics and employees of automobile manufacturers had a much higher risk of asbestos exposure. This is also true for DIY auto mechanics that repair their own vehicles and vehicles for friends and neighbors.
Ships, shipyards, and nearly anything associated with ships are frequently noted for the high risk of asbestos exposure. Any kind of work dealing with ships usually meant the exposure to high levels of asbestos, including building and maintenance. Asbestos was used in engine rooms to keep the enclosed equipment cool, but the confining space meant a much higher risk of considerable asbestos exposure.
Shipyard work is one of the main reasons that individuals with asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma are veterans of the military. Because the Navy’s ships and other vessels were heavily insulated with asbestos, veterans who served on those ships in World War II, The Korean War and/or The Vietnam war had high amounts of exposure. An estimated 30% of mesothelioma patients are military veterans.
While a service-connected exposure can play a role in developing mesothelioma, many veterans worked in other types of jobs after their discharge where they had a high risk of asbestos exposure. .
Although one of asbestos’ big selling points was its ability to retard fires, it was not completely effective against fire. Inhaling charred asbestos is frequently even more dangerous than breathing in the unburned fibers. Firefighters have a high risk of asbestos exposure that leads to mesothelioma or other related diseases for this reason.
While workplace exposure is the most common way to be exposed to asbestos, usually by ingestion or inhalation, many individuals who develop mesothelioma never work in a risky occupation.
US Workers Have An 8% to 13% Risk Of Asbestos Exposure And Mesothelioma
The risk of secondhand exposure to asbestos is also serious for people who:
- Inhalation of fibers brought home by a family member working with asbestos
- Close proximity to a facility or site that produced asbestos
- Working, living, or attending school in a building laden with ambient asbestos
Asbestos is occasionally found in loose building materials in schools, office buildings, libraries, homes, and just about anywhere else. Living close to a facility containing or manufacturing asbestos can also increase your risk of exposure even if you don’t actually set foot in it. And family members can experience asbestos exposure even if they’ve never been near it. Employees’ clothes can collect the fibers, and it can infect the air inside the house, or be transferred to someone washing the clothes.
It’s important to note that not everyone who was exposed to asbestos will become ill. Many people who worked closely with asbestos for many years, even decades, have never exhibited any signs of illness. On the flip side, many people who only worked a few years in a facility where asbestos was present have been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Asbestos Bans in the United States
As we mentioned earlier, the US is one of the few industrialized countries that have not completely banned asbestos. It is still allowed to be imported into the country as long as the asbestos is less than 1% of a product. Elsewhere, asbestos has been banned entirely in over 60 countries worldwide, including the entire EU. Continual attempts to completely ban asbestos in the US has largely been unsuccessful.
Dr. Irving J. Selikoff was the first to prove the connection between exposure to asbestos and the development of mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer through his milestone studies in the 1960’s. These studies led the way to regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on asbestos, and the Clean Air Act of 1970 formally categorized it as a “toxic air pollutant,” banning all asbestos-laden spray-on products.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) was formed in 1971, and also regulated workplace uses of asbestos. The EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act of (TSCA) of 1976 gave the agency more leeway in restrictions of asbestos usage for consumer products. Then in 1986, the passage of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) began inspections in educational institutions for asbestos, and provided for its removal.
The EPA’s Asbestos Ban & Phase Out Rule (ABPR) enacted in 1989 would have banned importation of it as well as banning it completely. An Appeals Court reversed the ban in 1991 with the evocation that manufacturers and the EPA could reach a compromise.
It wasn’t until 2002 when Senator Patty Murray of Washington tried again to ban asbestos. The Ban Asbestos In America Act (also called the “Murray Bill”) passed by the Senate in 2007, but the House didn’t. Much like 1989’s APBR, the original goal would have banned all processing, importation, manufacturing and vending of asbestos-containing products. Although some compromises were made that still allowed specific products to have asbestos, the bill never became US law.
The Bruce Van Bento Ban Asbestos And Prevent Mesothelioma Act in 2008 would have banned even more asbestos products than the TSCA. It would have also reclassified winchite, richterite and other amphibole minerals as asbestos. Unfortunately, this bill also didn’t make it through Congress. The bill was named after Bruce Vento, a member of the House of Representatives, who was also a patient of pleural mesothelioma, and died in 2000.
The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act gave the EPA more power to continue to investigate and prioritize asbestos as a carcinogenic substance and a hazardous materials. It was signed into law in 2016, amending the TSCA, and gave the EPA more clout to regulate asbestos.
However, the EPA’s new leadership has hinted at stopping research into asbestos’ hazards to humans, meaning that it may stop studying it in order to understand how it affects humans. The EPA introduced the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) in 2018, requiring manufacturers to seek agency approval if they plan to import, process, or manufacture new or current products that will contain asbestos. The SNUR went into effect on January 24, 2020.
SNUR seems like a good idea at first glance, but many see it as ambiguous, since new uses for asbestos that were previously inactive or unregulated could be formally approved. This also means that companies will be allowed to add asbestos into a wide range of products and no formal review would be required.
While there is no question that asbestos is dangerous, and its carcinogenic properties have long been well known and documented, a complete ban in the US still has not occurred, nor is there one in sight.
Unions and Asbestos
Unions are some of the most important defense between workers and unrestricted asbestos exposure. Leaders have helped members with both personal and legal affairs, such as:
- 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
Since the 1930’s asbestos’ toxic effects have been well understood. Perhaps not every corporate executive at the time knew of the dangers of asbestos, but quite a few executives were well aware of the death rate of workers due to the exposure. The discovery of secret memos indicates that it was commonplace for many managers to conceal that awareness and to pay for the silence.
But trade unions worked hard to educate workers on the dangers of daily asbestos exposure. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were two of the earliest unions that brought attention to the increasing concerns of the dangers of worker’s asbestos exposure. The unions hired doctors who provided expert medical testimony to the high health risks of asbestos, and worked to expose high-level collusion in the companies that worked to minimize the effects of the carcinogenic mineral.
Unions have also been successful to a degree in influencing asbestos-related legislation. One way they’ve been able to help correct the actions of corporations was the idea of asbestos trust funds that provide cash assistance to asbestos victims and their families.
Unfortunately, the amount of money in these trust funds is generally insufficient. Trust funds also prohibit people from filing a lawsuit and receiving a settlement through the court where they would be paid a bigger settlement.
Unions also lobby for the protection of its worker members. For instance, the United Steelworkers have been working for decades to enact amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which also includes workers who regularly handle asbestos. Many other unions have also worked diligently to protect their workers from workplace dangers including exposure to asbestos.
Many occupations have a high risk of encountering asbestos, and union workers frequently work in those occupations where asbestos is on hand, such as:
- Auto mechanics
- Steel workers
- Shipyard workers
There are unions for many of these fields, and unions represent a large number of employees. We’ve previously mentioned how employees are exposed to asbestos in industries. Sometimes, it’s found in insulation surrounding machinery and equipment. In other cases, asbestos is in materials that the employees work with on a daily basis, such as auto parts, paint and electrical wiring.
Should you suspect that you or a loved one have an asbestos-related illness as a result of your job site, contact your union representative. They have financial assistance and other resources available that can help make things easier for you and your family. They 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
While this isn’t a complete list, these are some of the labor unions who will support you should you find yourself with an asbestos-related illness like mesothelioma.
Handling Of Asbestos
A discussion on the subject of asbestos should include some dialogue of the issue of handling. The best solution is always to keep as much distance as you can between you and a material or product containing asbestos. There is no such thing as a “safe” amount of asbestos, so if you aren’t required to touch it or get near it, you’ll be safe from it.
Unfortunately, you may be required to handle asbestos if you work somewhere that contains it or if you plan to move into a residence that could have asbestos contamination. If you have to clean up after any type of natural disaster, you may end up handling it as well.
It’s worth mentioning that asbestos that sits undisturbed and is in good condition is not much of a health risk. But old or damaged asbestos can create a health risk because it is highly likely that it could be released into the air and subsequently inhaled. Asbestos-containing products are very likely to be damaged after a natural disaster and to also release toxic airborne fibers.
Buildings that were built prior to the 1980’s tend to have building materials and other products that contain asbestos as a component. This means that if you decide to do any remodeling or demolition, testing for asbestos prior to beginning work is vital. Contact an asbestos removal specialist if you are unsure if the structure contains asbestos. If you move or dislocate the asbestos fibers, you could put yourself, your family, and anyone working on your structure at risk.
The best person to help rid your home or other structure of it is a certified asbestos removal or abatement specialist. They are qualified to remove and dispose of any asbestos homes, offices, factories, or other places, and are the only people who should ever deal with asbestos in any amount. Without the assistance of someone certified to handle asbestos, even a small DIY remodeling project could have serious implications later for you and your family.
After any asbestos removal and remediation, it’s also a good idea to contact an asbestos removal consultant to review independently how well the removal specialist cleared the asbestos from the structure.
You may not be able to call an asbestos removal specialist during or after a natural disaster. An emergency kit that can cover the possibility of exposure to asbestos is a good idea, since any damage could disrupt any intact asbestos fibers. Disasters such as:
- Harsh wind storms
Can lead to the partial or complete destruction of homes and other buildings, and cause an airborne influx of dislodged asbestos fibers. Add to your emergency kit facemasks that can remove asbestos as well as any other airborne contaminant that could be released. In the event that you have to handle asbestos, along with the face mask, you’ll also need:
- Eye protection
- Clothes you can throw away
Since an emergency situation may not allow you to gather protective gear and proper clothing to wear while you work, wearing things that you can discard is a safe idea.
You should always have and utilize correct protective gear if you must ever come in contact with asbestos, whether moving or disposing. To keep the fibers from becoming airborne, soak the asbestos with water, add into a separate garbage bag and seal it tightly. Even wet, asbestos is considered hazardous waste and must be disposed of separately from your regular garbage, in a different location.
While it’s best to avoid any handling of asbestos at any time, if you must deal with it, make sure you are able to protect yourself with the best available corrective gear.