Why Is Asbestos Still A Problem In The U.S.?

Checking car brake system for repair at car garage

The hazardous health effects of asbestos exposure have been widely publicized for decades. Although its use has been heavily regulated in the United States since passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, not only does asbestos continue to make international headlines but it is also responsible for thousands of deaths annually here in the U.S.

Industries such as construction, electricity, shipbuilding, and other uses of asbestos have been nonexistent since the 20th century. However, asbestos is still an active part of chlorine production, and it can still be found in older buildings. Asbestos exposure remains a very real possibility today.

Products that can still contain asbestos. There are many, including cement products, clothing, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl-asbestos floor tile, millboard, roof and non-roof coatings. Automobile components can also contain asbestos, including transmission components, clutch facings, disc brake pads, drum brake linking, brake blocks and gaskets.

The chloralkali industry accounts for about 67% of asbestos consumption in the U.S, roofing products about 30% and other unknown applications about 3%.

Here are some important facts about asbestos, including how you can protect yourself and your family from exposure.

If asbestos use is heavily regulated, why is it still such a problem?

Without a ban on its use, asbestos continues to be imported and used in many products in the United States. While asbestos has not been mined in the U.S since 2002, we still import around 1,000 metric tons for consumption every year, most of which comes from Brazil. “Legacy asbestos” remains in buildings, infrastructures, and products across the U.S. For example, a 1984 study revealed that an estimated 20 percent of public and commercial buildings contain asbestos.

Where might legacy asbestos be found?

In addition to homes, schools, and workplaces legacy asbestos can be found in public infrastructures such as water distribution systems, pipelines, and electric power generation and transmission facilities. It can also be found in children’s toys, old car tires and brakes, cement pipes, insulation, floor tiles, and roofing and siding materials.

Why isn’t asbestos banned in the United States?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to impose a ban on asbestos mining and manufacturing in 1989. However, the proposed ban met with heavy resistance from large corporations and failed to pass. Renewed efforts are now making progress toward a ban and, if successful, it would be finalized in 2023.

How could I be exposed to asbestos?

According to the agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure can occur when asbestos-containing material is disturbed, releasing asbestos fibers into the air. Asbestos that is embedded or contained in undisturbed solid materials presents a negligible risk of exposure. Fibers may be inhaled or ingested.

How is asbestos-containing material released into the air?

The two primary ways asbestos fibers can become airborne are through building renovation or natural deterioration over time. When the demolition phase of a remodeling project occurs, for example, the resulting dust of affected material is easily inhaled. Alternatively, normal aging can cause products to deteriorate and expose the asbestos.

Who is at greatest risk for asbestos exposure?

Asbestos exposure is the #1 cause of work-related deaths worldwide. Specifically, construction workers, firefighters, industrial workers, power plant workers, and shipyard workers were top at-risk occupations in the 20th century. Workers in chlorine production are still at risk. Painters, hair stylists, hair dressers, bakers, and pastry chefs represent less obvious at-risk occupations.

What diseases are associated with asbestos exposure?

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer affecting the tissue lining the lungs and abdomen. It is exclusively associated with asbestos exposure and is nearly always fatal. Asbestos can cause other cancers such as lung, liver, larynx, and ovarian cancer as well. Also, asbestosis is an irreversible lung disease with no specific effective treatment options to date. Asbestosis causes scarring of the lungs which in turn reduces the ability of a person to inhale and exhale properly, making it quite difficult to breathe. Asbestosis may take many years to show up – the time between exposure and symptoms may be between 15 to 30 years.

How can I protect myself, my family, and others from exposure, especially to legacy asbestos?

Be informed about the location of asbestos in your home, school, or workplace. Learn and follow government regulations and recommendations about asbestos. If you have questions or concerns about the presence of asbestos in your home, do not disturb the area and contact a certified and experienced asbestos professional who can evaluate your situation.

Asbestos was used so widely and heavily in the last century that it will be around for the foreseeable future. However, you can have peace of mind by staying informed about its potential presence and working with a professional if action is required.

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