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How Dangerous Is Asbestos?

This year the EPA is set to review restrictions on 10 high priority chemicals as part of the Toxic Substance Control Act, including asbestos. So why is asbestos dangerous? Is the US likely to change its stance on the minerals?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
April 25, 2017
Episode #236

In the recent past, the World Health Organization linked asbestos to 107,000 lost lives worldwide in a single year. The use of asbestos is currently banned in 55 countries, including most of Europe. Despite the fact that an estimated 10-15% of those deaths occurred in the United States, asbestos is not banned in the United States or Canada.

Here in the US, asbestos is still imported and found in consumer products like clothing, vinyl floor tiles, roof coatings, cement shingles, and automobile brake pads and clutches. Many older homes further still contain asbestos in heating ducts, fireplaces, interior paint, and electrical wiring. Although some specific restrictions on the use of asbestos are in place in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) has a full list of asbestos-containing products that it is still legal to manufacture, import, and sell here.

This year the EPA is set to review restrictions on 10 high priority chemicals as part of the Toxic Substance Control Act, including asbestos. So how dangerous is asbestos? Is the US likely to change its stance on the minerals?

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is actually a commercial name by which we have come to know a variety of six fibrous minerals that occur in nature. The use of asbestos in building and manufacturing ramped up throughout the Industrial Revolution because the minerals are resistant to chemical and heat degradation. In addition, they are fire resistant, electrically resistant, and great insulators. They also have a high tensile strength, or, in other words, are flexible and very affordable. Asbestos was used, for example, to insulate electrical fixtures and as general building insulation, and its small fibers made it easily mixed in with cement or woven into fabrics.

Why Is Asbestos Harmful?

Unfortunately, the flaws of asbestos soon began to reveal themselves, suggesting it was not the miracle substance it was originally considered to be. As early as 1918, a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted an abnormally high risk of early death for asbestos workers.

Along with its flexibility and resistivity, asbestos is also friable when handled or easily crumbled into microscopic-sized particles. According to the Center for Disease Control, inhalation of those particles, even with exposure periods of only a few days, has led to life threatening asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that forms on the lungs or abdomen.  

The National Institute of Health estimates that 11 million people were exposed to asbestos from ~1940 to 1980, but that symptoms of mesothelioma take an average of 50 years from first exposure to present themselves.

The history of asbestos-related scientific research is controversial and strong language in scientific journals, at least for scientists, warns against the risks of not taking the risks of asbestos seriously. However, a South Carolina circuit court ruled in 1978 that asbestos companies had undergone “a conscious effort” to suppress information on the dangers of asbestos.

Despite repeated attempts to minimize the harm of asbestos, whether it be through claims that some types of asbestos were harmless or that minimal exposure was okay, there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest that asbestos is safe or even worth the risk. Instead there has been study after study linking asbestos exposure to long term health risks.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has classified asbestos as a carcinogen, a substance capable of causing cancer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that there is “no safe level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber” citing research from the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, just to name a few.

The EPA’s Stance on Asbestos

The EPA is slated to review the restrictions on asbestos use in the US and potentially consider a federal ban. However, the current president of the United States claims asbestos to be “100% safe” in his book, The Art of the Comeback, and goes so far as to call the movement against asbestos a conspiracy “led by the mob.”  Scott Pruitt, the new Administrator of the US EPA has also refused to answer questions on asbestos regulations in Senate hearings so asbestos activists groups, family members of asbestos victims, and health workers alike have shown concern about what the future holds for asbestos regulation.

Scott Pruitt, the new Administrator of the US EPA has also refused to answer questions on asbestos regulations in Senate hearings so asbestos activists groups, family members of asbestos victims, and health workers alike have shown concern about what the future holds for asbestos regulation.

For tips on how to protect yourself and your family from asbestos, including how to hire a professional to diagnose potential asbestos-laden materials in your home, see the EPA’s website.  

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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