Asbestos: An “Inextinguishable” Material’s Destructive U.S. History

Asbestos: An “Inextinguishable” Material’s Destructive U.S. History


Asbestos is a word many people hear, but do not fully understand. The word asbestos actually comes from the ancient Greek ἄσβεστος, meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable.” Its use in human culture dates back at least 4,500 years.  Asbestos is a naturally occurring fiber found in rock and soil. It comes in many different forms, but Chrysotile is the most commonly used form.

The fiber strength and heat resistance qualities of asbestos made it an appealing material to use in products such as insulation, roof tiles, and brake linings. Although these qualities make it a great insulator, it is a friable material. When disturbed, tiny fibers break off and become airborne. These fibers are harmful, and when ingested, can become trapped in the human body. This leads to diseases such as Asbestosis and Mesothelioma lung cancer.

In the 19th century, concerns about the side effects of asbestos started to rise. Researchers in the 1950’s confirmed that asbestos was hazardous. Despite the research, asbestos use continued into the 70’s. Usage did not decrease until 1976, when Congress passed The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, giving the EPA the authority to test and regulate toxic chemicals including asbestos.

At Least 10,000 Americans Die Every Year from Asbestos Exposure

One of those Americans was my father. As a young adult, my dad worked in boiler rooms and as a bricklayer. These occupations are at an increased risk for asbestos exposure. My father was never aware that he was working with a deadly carcinogen. Twenty years or more after the exposure, doctors diagnosed my father with Mesothelioma lung cancer. Mesothelioma, as defined by the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Caused by asbestos, Mesothelioma has no known cure and a very poor prognosis.

At the time of diagnosis, my father was only 58 years old. They discovered over 20 malignant tumors on his left lung. My family was devastated when we heard the news. The doctors said my dad would only live a year with this form of cancer. This was the first time my family heard of Mesothelioma; we did not know asbestos could kill. We tried everything we could to keep him alive. My father underwent chemotherapy and radiation; he also had his left lung removed. Even though our efforts were valiant, we could not stop the spread of this aggressive cancer. It eventually spread to my father’s brain, taking his life at the age of 59.

 

Moving Towards an Asbestos-Free United States

So far, over 50 developed countries have banned Asbestos – but the United States is not one of them.

Groups like the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, NIOSH, OSHA and the NRDC are all working towards a ban. They continue to inform the government of the dangers of asbestos and hope to see a ban put in place in the near future.

Asbestos use is not as prevalent as it once was in the United States, but importation of the toxic material continues. Although asbestos use is decreasing, many old buildings still contain asbestos, putting citizens at risk – and a significant segment of the workforce faces toxic exposure daily. The Asbestos Association has identified a list of occupations at high risk to asbestos exposure, including the following:

  • Workers involved in the manufacturing, mining and milling of asbestos products
  • Construction workers (including insulators, sheet metal workers, electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, and carpenters)
  • Power plant workers
  • Boilermakers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Firefighters
  • Teachers
  • Veterans

 

Oftentimes, workers are not even aware that they are working with asbestos, nor that exposure to asbestos is deadly. The EPA has regulations in place, like the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which requires inspections and asbestos management plans for buildings like schools. Regulations on asbestos help keep Americans safe when dealing with the removal of asbestos. When asbestos is handled or disposed of incorrectly, peoples’ lives are at stake.

OSHA states that, “every occupational exposure to asbestos can cause injury of disease; every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of getting an asbestos related disease. Where there is exposure, employers are required to further protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices and instituting engineering controls to reduce the airborne levels.”

This places the burden of responsibility upon employers, requiring reduced exposure via administrative controls and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). When legal limits and exposure times are exceeded, medical monitoring is mandated.

Fortunately, tracking, monitoring and managing exposure to asbestos and other toxic substances has been simplified through the use of Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) software. Industrial Hygiene professionals and employers can reduce asbestos exposure and mitigate risks by using responsible practices and software solutions like Gensuite.

 

Getting Involved

There are many ways to get involved and help keep people safe from asbestos exposure. Education, advocacy, and community are three key items that the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization promotes.

  • Education – Educate the public and medical community about asbestos-related diseases and preventing asbestos exposure. Support research that leads to early detection, prevention and a cure.
  • Advocacy – Collaborate with organizations around the world for a global asbestos ban. Raise awareness that asbestos is still legal and lethal in the U.S. Protect asbestos victims’ civil rights.
  • Community – Unite asbestos victims to Share Their Stories, learn about treatment options, and support each other.

I urge people to stay educated on the topic of asbestos and to promote regulations and a ban on this toxic material. It is a proven carcinogen causing thousands of deaths each year. I am proud to be a member of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. I share my father’s story in hopes of preventing just one more person from becoming a statistic. No matter how effective of an insulator asbestos may be, there are safer alternatives available. No human life should be taken at the expense of big business.

 

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