Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring (found in rocks and soil) impure minerals that are technically classified as magnesium silicates. Magnesium and silicon are each types of chemical elements. A silicate is a combination of atoms of oxygen and silicon. Asbestos is also classified as a hydrated silicate, meaning that it contains water. All forms of asbestos naturally occur in bundles of long, separable, strong, individual fibers.
The smallest and most dangerous asbestos fibers are invisible to the human eye without a microscope. This is because they are less than one micrometer (one millionth of a meter) in width. A meter is approximately 39 inches (slightly more than 3 feet) so a millionth of that gives you a sense of how small this is. To put this is further perspective, a human hair is about 17 to 181 micrometers in width. An asbestos fiber can be as small as 0.01 micrometers in width but are often in the range of 3 to 20 micrometers in width. Asbestos with very fine fibers are referred to as “amianthus.” Asbestos is sold and used for its physically desirable properties, primarily heat and electrical resistance.
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ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF ASBESTOS?
Yes, there are six different types of asbestos defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The first type is chrysotile asbestos which comes from a type of rock classified as serpentinite rock. This type of asbestos is thus described as coming from the serpentine class. The five other types of asbestos come from a class known as amphibole asbestos: actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, and tremolite. The two classes of asbestos are made up of different chemicals and also differ in terms of how dangerous they are to one’s health when inhaled. This is described in more detail later in this entry. A further description of the six asbestos types is listed below.
SERPENTINE CLASS (WHITE ASBESTOS):
As noted above, this type of asbestos (chyrsotile asbestos) comes from serpentinite rocks. It is made up of curly fibers because it is made up of a sheetlike or layered structure that is bowed and rolled up. This is unlike the other types of asbestos, which are made up of more brittle and needle-like fibers. Those fibers are very straight and needlelike because they are made up of strongly-bonded repeated ribbon-like structures that extend the width of the crystal. Chyrsotile asbestos is thus more flexible than the amphibole type of asbestos and can be spun and woven into fabric. The other types of asbestos are more limited in their ability to be made into fabric.
Chyrsotile asbestos is the only type of asbestos that is mined on a wide scale in some countries. It has been used more than any other type of asbestos, including the United States. The Asbestos Building Inspectors Manual from the EPA states that this form of asbestos represents about 95% of the asbestos found in U.S. buildings. It was most commonly used as part of cement roof sheets for outbuildings, garages, and warehouses. It was commonly used in joint compound (a plastery type substance used to seal joints of drywall), plaster, and texture coatings. It has also been used to make some ceilings, walls, floors (including vinyl tiles), sheeting, and adhesives.
Other uses include brake linings (e.g., drum brake linings), brake pads and shoes, pipe insulation/wrap, furnace insulation, cloth behind fuses (for fuse protection), rope seals for boilers, roofing tars, felts (a type of non-woven cloth), siding, shingles (e.g., roof shingles), gaskets, popcorn ceilings, fireproofing (e.g., fire blankets, fireproof clothing for firefighters, interior fire doors), caulk, stage curtains, drilling fluid additives, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), thermal pipe insulation, dental cast linings, flexible duct connectors, clutch plates and sealings for rotating shafts (revolving rod that transmits power or motion). This type of asbestos is also used in filters that remove fine particles from chemicals, liquids, and wine. The above is not an inclusive list of materials that contain asbestos. Overall, asbestos can be found in over 3,000 different commercial products.
Some manufacturers of products that only contain chyrsotile asbestos have claimed that it is not as harmful as amphibole asbestos. This claim has been widely disputed by medical and health professionals especially given how widely used it has been in the U.S. (and the known health problems that developed).
The Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) Registry Number (CAS No.) of chrysotile asbestos is 12001-29-5. The CAS No. is used to uniquely identify chemical structures. The chemical formula is Mg3(Si2O5)(OH)4. Mg stands for magnesium, Si stands for silicon, O stands for oxygen, and H stands for hydrogen (a type of gas).
This form of asbestos was mostly used for casings of water, electrical, and telecommunication services. It is also used for thermal and chemical insulators such as fire resistant doors, gaskets, limpet spray (a type of spray insulation), cement sheets and pipes for construction, lagging (a type of heat insulation), and low density (lightly compressed) insulation boards for floors and ceilings. The five types of amphibole asbestos are listed below:
Amosite (brown asbestos): Amosite was named from an acronym of the location where this form of asbestos commonly comes from: Asbestos Mines of South Africa (AMOS). The Asbestos Building Inspectors Manual from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that this form of asbestos is the second most likely to be found in buildings. The CAS No. is 12172-73-5. The chemical formula is Fe7Si8O22(OH)2. Fe stands for iron.
Crocidolite (blue asbestos): This is the fibrous form of riebeckite, which is a type of mineral rich in sodium. It usually occurs as soft fibers that are easily destroyed with little effort (e.g., a finger press). It is mostly found in Southern Africa but is also found in Australia. The CAS No. is 12001-28-4. The chemical formula is Na2Fe2+3Fe3+2Si8O22(OH)2. Na stands for sodium.
The other forms of asbestos listed below are less commonly used for industrial purposes but are still found in a variety of construction and insulation materials as well as some consumer products.
Tremolite asbestos: The CAS No. is 77536-68-6. The chemical formula is Ca2Mg5Si8O22(OH)2. Ca stands for calcium.
Actinolite asbestos: The CAS No. is 77536-66-4. The chemical formula is Ca2(Mg, Fe)5(Si8O22)(OH)2.
Anthophyllite asbestos: The CAS No. is 77536-67-5. The chemical formula is (Mg, Fe)7Si8O22(OH)2.
WHAT DOES ASBESTOS LOOK LIKE?
Asbestos rock (chyrsotile form) can be seen on the left with its separable fibers. On the right, straight needle-like asbestos fibers can be seen under a high powered microscope
The shape or form that a crystal (or group of crystals) takes while crystallizing is known as the mineral habit. The shape or form that asbestos crystals takes while crystallizing is known as the asbestos habit.
When asbestos minerals cool, the molecules line up in parallel with each other and form crystals. These crystals have three cleavage planes (breaking points), with two of these much weaker than the third. When the proper force is applied, the crystals break along their weakest points. The crystals break in a line-shaped and thread-like manner, which creates the long fibers. The fibers can continue to break such that one large asbestos fiber can turn into hundreds of thinner and smaller fibers.
The smaller asbestos fibers become, the easier it is for them to fly through the air and be accidentally inhaled. Asbestos fibers, like many other small fibers, can settle on a flat surface, but easily become airborne again by some type of movement.
WHERE IS ASBESTOS FOUND?
Asbestos is found in mines, the largest of which is in a town that is actually named Asbestos (located in Quebec, Canada). Asbestos mining for commercial purposes began in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. In 2006, 2.3 tons of asbestos were mined across the world, in 11 or 12 countries. Russia was the largest producer (40.2%), followed by China (19.9%), Kazakhstan (13.0%), Canada (10.3%), and Brazil (9.9%).
WHAT ARE ASBESTIFORM MATERIALS?
There are other mineral substances that are referred to as “asbestiform” as opposed to “asbestos” meaning that they are similar to asbestos but are not regulated. These substances are just as harmful as tremolite, amosite, and crocidolite. Examples include the minerals richerite and winchite. These substances may be found as contaminants in products such as the Zonolite Insulation made by W.R. Grace and Company. Zonolite was a trade name for vermiculite, which is the name of the mineral that expands with heat that was present in the insulation. Vermiculite insulation is a type of pour-in insulation.
Asbestos has also been found as a contaminant in other types of vermiculite. A vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, that was operated by W.R. Grace and Company allegedly exposed workers (e.g., mill workers) and residents in the community to danger since the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos (particularly tremolite asbestos). The EPA concluded that activities from the mine and other activities that disturbed the soil in the area released harmful asbestos into the air. Since 1999/2000, EPA began cleanup efforts there and the area is now a Superfund (hazardous waste site) cleanup area. The EPA has spent 120 million dollars to clean up Libby, Montana. W.R. Grace was ordered by the EPA to reimburse them for cleanup costs but this would need to be approved by the bankruptcy court. W.R. Grace filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001. If W.R. Grace could not pay the bill, the burden would fall on the taxpayers (state or federal).
WAS W.R. GRACE AND COMPANY SUED?
On 2/5/05, W.R. Grace Company and seven top executives were indicted on 10-counts by a federal grand jury for the way it allegedly operated the vermiculite mine as discussed above. Some of the specific charges were wire fraud (fraud involving electronic communications), conspiring to knowingly endangering residents by concealing air monitoring results, obstructing justice by interfering with an EPA investigation, violating the Clean Air Act, providing asbestos materials to residents and schools, and conspiring to release asbestos to conceal health problems from asbestos contamination. The Department of Justice reported that 1200 residents developed asbestos-related diseases as a result, that some people died, and that there could be many more injuries and the death.
On 6/8/06, a federal grand judge dismissed the conspiracy charge of knowingly endangering residents because some of the defendants had left the company before the five year statute of limitations had begun to run. The wire fraud charges were also dropped.
In July 2007, an appellate court overturned an evidentiary hearing that harmed the government’s case. In September 2007, the same appellate court stated that the government was permitted to reinstate the criminal charges.
In February 2009, the criminal trial began after years of pretrial proceedings that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, one of the defendants died of cancer by the time the trial began. A federal judge barred prosecutors from using much of the evidence they hoped to introduce. The defense accused the government of not turning over evidence that would have undermined the credibility of a key prosecution witness. The government later acknowledged committing discovery violations (not turning over evidence to the other side).
On 5/8/09, W.R. Grace and three defendants (charges had been dropped against two others) were acquitted of “knowingly” harming the people of Libby, Montana. The chairman, president, and CEO of the company (Fred Festa) stated that the company “worked hard to keep the operations in compliance with the laws and standards of the day."
WHAT TYPES OF ASBESTOS ARE THE MOST HARMFUL AND WHY ARE THEY HARMFUL?
Asbestos is not harmful when it is intact and undisturbed. When structures containing the sharp microscopic fibers become deteriorated, damaged, or disturbed by repair, remodeling (e.g., cutting, sanding, hammering), demolition, or other manipulation, the fibers can become airborne and easily inhaled, leading them to penetrate tissues (e.g., lung tissue, lining of lung tissue). Naturally occurring asbestos can also become disturbed through construction or weathering processes, releasing asbestos fibers in the air. The lungs can expel most asbestos fibers but not all of them since some become lodged and remain there throughout life.
The amosite and crocidolite forms of asbestos (both from the amphibole class) are the most harmful to health because they persist for a long time in the lungs since they are composed of longer and more durable fibers.
Long and thin asbestos fibers can reach the lower airways and alveoli. Alveoli are tiny sacs where gases are exchanged in the lungs so that breathing can take place. By contrast, wide asbestos fibers are expected to be deposited in the upper respiratory tract and not to reach the lungs or the pleura. Short and thin asbestos fibers can also play a role in asbestos-related illnesses. Thus, the size, shape, and chemical structure of asbestos fibers play a role in determining the risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Other factors include the length of exposure, source of exposure, amount of exposure, and personal risk factors such as smoking and pre-existing lung disease. These factors are discussed in more detail throughout this entry.
CAN ASBESTOS CAUSE CANCER AND DEATH?
Yes, all forms of asbestos can cause cancer and as a result, can cause death. Cancer is an abnormal growth of new tissue characterized by uncontrolled growth of abnormally structured cells that have a more primitive form. Asbestos has been classified as a carcinogen (cancer causing substance) by the EPA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The cancer that asbestos is most likely to cause is mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer (2,000 to 3,000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. a year) that involves the mesothelium. The mesothelium is a thin protective lining that covers many of the body’s internal organs such as the lungs, chest cavity, the pericardium (a sac surrounding the heart), and the peritoneum (abdominal cavity lining, near the digestive tract). When mesothelioma affects the lungs it is known as pleural mesothelioma. This is the most common form of mesothelioma. When it affects the abdominal cavity, it is known as peritoneal mesothelioma. When mesothelioma affects the heart it is known as pericardial mesothelioma. Physicians hypothesize that the asbestos fibers may impact the heart through the bloodstream.
Mesothelioma is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos or asbestos-like fibers. You can learn the mesothelioma facts online. Mesothelioma has occurred in people who worked around asbestos, family members of the exposed worker, and people living close to asbestos mines and factories. In about 70 to 80% of mesothelioma cases, asbestos exposure at work is reported. It is not associated with smoking, unlike lung cancer. It can take 20 to 50 years after exposure for mesothelioma to develop (usually 30 years or more) which is why great efforts have been undertaken to prevent exposure of school children. The late diagnosis can sometimes occur because the symptoms (difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, excessive coughing, pain in the chest/abdomen, weight loss, appetite loss), are similar to less serious conditions such as the flu, bronchitis, heart disease, and viral pneumonia. Patients usually go to the doctor initially due to difficulty breathing and shortness of breath.
The term “mesothelioma” was first used in the medical literature in 1931 and was associated with asbestos in the 1940s. About 100,000 people have died or will die of asbestos exposure related to ship building (see modern history section below). This is why mesothelioma occurs seven times greater than the national rate in Hampton Roads (southeast Virginia) since it is a ship-building center. For every thousand of the 4.3 million shipyard workers during World War II, about 14 died of mesothelioma and an unknown number died of asbestosis (see two sections down for definition).
Unfortunately, most patients with mesothelioma dies within a year of diagnosis. Treatment will depend on the stage of disease. If the disease is diagnosed in the earliest stage, the patient may be eligible for surgery or other established/conventional treatments (e.g., chemotherapy, radiation) to help slow the disease, although there is no cure. Chemotherapy for mesothelioma includes cisplatin and alimta.
Combining two or more treatments (known as multimodal therapy) has been helpful in reducing symptoms and improving life expectancy. There are clinical trials available for experimental treatments that patients can explore. While experimental treatments can improve prognosis, they are risky because they are experimental and thus, less is known about their effects compared to well-known established treatments. Examples include gene therapy or photodynamic therapy. Gene therapy is the insertion, removal, or altering of the genes within a person’s cells and tissues to treat disease. Genes are units of material contained in a person's cells that contain coded instructions as for how certain bodily characteristics (such as eye color) will develop. In photodynamic therapy, a patient is given a drug that is sensitive to light and which contains cancer killing substances that are absorbed by cancer. During surgery, a light beam is focused at the cancer site, which then activates the drug and kills the cancer cells.
Some patients have reported that taking supplements or designing a nutrition plan to improve the immune system has been helpful to them. This is known as immunotherapy. Some research suggests that a strong immune system may be what is common to mesothelioma survivors.
Some people use holistic treatment methods for mesothelioma such as acupuncture, massage, meditation, aromatherapy, yoga, and/or a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy. TENS involves electrical stimulation of nerves for treatment purposes. These holistic treatments are used to decrease side effects associated with established therapies.
Asbestos is known to cause cancer of the lungs. Lung cancer causes the most deaths from asbestos exposure (typically after 15 or more years of exposure). In lung cancer, a tumor invades the lung tissue and blocks the lung’s air passages, which compromises breathing. People at high risk for lung cancer are those who work in the milling, mining, and manufacturing of asbestos and those who use asbestos and asbestos products. Coughing and altered breathing are the most common symptoms of lung cancer. Sometimes the cough may bring up blood. Other symptoms include persistent chest pains, hoarseness, wheezing, shortness of breath, unexplained weight loss, difficulty breathing, and anemia. Anemia is a condition in which there is an abnormally low amount of hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin is a substance present in red blood cells that help carry oxygen to cells in the body.
Some research with asbestos workers indicates an association with gastrointestinal (e.g., esophagus, stomach, intestines) or colorectal cancers (colon and rectum) but the finding is not consistent. The way these studies work is they determine the rate of death from a disease in the normal population and then compare that to a group of interest (e.g., people exposed to asbestos). One study found that while 59.4 out of 17,800 people in the normal population are expected to develop gastrointestinal cancers, that 99 out of 17,800 asbestos insulation workers had this type of cancer. Similarly, while 17.1 out of 2,500 people in the population would be expected to develop this type of cancer, 26% of asbestos textile workers developed these types of cancer. Other studies have not found an association between these types of cancer and asbestos exposure. Some studies have found that short-term oral asbestos exposure can cause lesions (damaged areas) that are a precursor for colon cancer.
Higher than expected increases in cancer deaths in one or more tissue area (mostly gastrointenstinal) have been found in places with high levels of asbestos in drinking water. Some of these increases were statistically significant, meaning they were unlikely to be due to chance. However, since the increases tended to be small, other risk factors such as smoking may have been related.
Very few studies support an association between asbestos exposure and cancer of the kidneys, gallbladder, larynx (voice box), brain, and bladder. However, there have been few studies on the topic and the evidence is inconclusive. Some studies have found no association between asbestos exposure and the rate of larynx cancer. In fact, a meta-analysis (combined analysis) of 55 studies found no association between asbestos exposure and larynx cancer. One study did find an association between larynx cancer and exposure to cancer among workers but did not find a clear association between such exposure and cancers of the urinary, reproductive, blood, or lymphatic (lymph) system. The lymphatic system is a system of vessels that drain lymph from all over the body back into the blood. Lymph is a milky fluid that contains proteins, fats, and white blood cells (which help the body fight off diseases).
HOW DOES ASBESTOS CAUSE CANCER?
Asbestos is believed to cause cancer through mechanical effects and unwanted signal changes. Regarding mechanical effects, asbestos fibers less than 60 namometers (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter) can cause destructive tangling of chromosomes (since they are of similar size). Chromosomes are microscopic structures that contain genes. Genes are units of material contained in a person's cells that contain coded instructions for how certain bodily characteristics will develop. Damage to chromosomes can cause abnormal cell division, which can lead to cancer. Regarding unwanted signal changes, it is theorized that asbestos fibers greater than 120 nanometers can cause changes in signals between cells that lead to the development of cancer.
In essence, it is believed that the asbestos fibers trigger some type of inflammation which leads to a disease. Sometimes this disease is cancer but sometimes it can be something else (see next section).
WHAT OTHER HEALTH PROBLEMS CAN ASBESTOS CAUSE?
Asbestos exposure can cause asbestosis, which is a serious, potentially fatal, long-term, and usually slowly progressive (worsening) disease characterized by the production of firm scar tissue in the lungs. It typically occurs after 15 or more years of asbestos exposure.
The scar tissue is caused by irritation of lung tissue from an acid the body produces to dissolve the fibers. Scarring and thickening of the lungs is referred to as pulmonary fibrosis, which is known to occur when asbestos fibers accumulate in one of the types of bronchioles, known as terminal bronchioles. Bronchioles are small airways that branch off the other small airways connected to the lungs. The scarring in the lungs makes it difficult for oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass through the lungs. This makes it more difficult for the lungs to provide oxygen to the blood, which affects breathing. The lung damage is permanent.
Asbestosis can be present despite a lack of symptoms. However, sometimes symptoms are present and sometimes those symptoms can be disabling. The main symptom of asbestosis is shortness of breath. It can also cause a persistent cough that expels mucus, chest pain/tightness, loss of appetite, wheezing, or rales. Rales are noises that sound like crackling, clicking, rattling, and/or bubbling. In asbestosis, the lungs can have the appearance of a honeycomb, much like a bee-hive. The lungs can become so scarred that they no longer function. It usually takes 10 to 20 years for this condition to develop after asbestos exposure. Unfortunately, there is no cure. The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in England in 1924. By the 1930s, England regulated ventilation and made asbestosis an excusable reason to miss work. About 10 years later, the U.S. did the same.
OTHER HEALTH PROBLEMS
Asbestos can cause plaques, calcification (calcium deposits), and effusion of the pleura. The pleura is the smooth, moist double layer of flexible tissue that lines the lungs and the chest wall. The plaques are areas that are fibrous or hardened areas caused by partial calcium deposits. These areas can be detected via x-ray. The plaques are not precursors to lung cancer but people with pleural disease caused by asbestos exposure may be at risk of developing lung cancer.
Although pleural plaques do not cause symptoms, they can lead to thickening of the pleura (sometimes known as diffuse pleural thickening). This can be associated with asbestosis. Pleural thickening usually does not cause symptoms but in cases of extensive exposure, it can cause impaired lung functioning. Pleural effusion is an accumulation of fluid between the layers of tissue that line the lungs and chest cavity.
Asbestos can cause warts. A wart is technically a growth on the body caused by a virus. Asbestos is obviously not a virus but the condition is called “asbestos warts” because they take on the appearance of warts. These warts are caused when sharp fibers get stuck in the skin and are overgrown, causing growths that look like callouses (hard area of skin).
WHAT FACTORS DETERMINE IF ASBESTOS EXPOSURE WILL LEAD TO DISEASE?
In general, asbestos exposure becomes an increasingly greater health risk as higher amounts of asbestos fibers (known as the asbestos concentration) are inhaled over a long period of time (known as asbestos duration). Asbestos exposure tends to occur to people who work directly with asbestos on a daily basis. This is the asbestos frequency (how often during a time period that asbestos exposure occurred). Research (e.g., animal research) on asbestos related illness indicates that they tend to occur with cumulative exposures ranging from about 5 to 1,200 fibers a year/mL. This measurement value represents the number of fibers found in each milliliter of air multiplied by the number of years of exposure. For example, 1 year worked at a level of 10 fibers/mL gives a cumulative exposure of 10 fibers/mL years). Cumulative exposures of 5 to 1,200 fibers a year/mL would be due to 40 years of occupational exposure to 0.125 to 30 fiber/mL. Health effects from asbestos exposure can continue to progress even after asbestos exposure has ended.
If someone is exposed once to a high amount of asbestos or is exposed to low levels of asbestos over a short period of time, the risk of developing asbestos-related disease is unlikely. We are all exposed to a low level of asbestos in the air, water, and soil but most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos do not develop serious health problems. Asbestos can cause the skin to itch upon contact. The risk of harmful health effects (e.g., lung cancer) associated with asbestos exposure is made worse by smoking. Thus, if you have been exposed to asbestos, it is important not to smoke. There is evidence that quitting smoking can reduce the risk of developing lung cancer in asbestos-exposed workers. Interestingly, smoking combined with asbestos exposure does not appear to increase the risk of developing mesothelioma.
WHAT ARE THE COMMON SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF ASBESTOS EXPOSURE?
Signs and symptoms of specific asbestos-related diseases are noted in prior sections. In general, people who suspected that they have had asbestos exposure should see their doctor if the following signs or symptoms develop: unplanned weight loss, difficulty swallowing, persistent worsening cough, coughing up blood, neck or facial swelling, fatigue, chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath, hoarseness, wheezing, or anemia. Anemia is a condition in which there is an abnormally low amount of hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin is substance present in red blood cells that help carry oxygen to cells in the body.
WHAT TYPE OF DOCTOR SHOULD I SEE IF I BELIEVE I HAVE HEALTH EFFECTS FROM ASBESTOS EXPOSURE?
The type of doctor that should be seen for this is usually a pulmonologist, which is a type of lung specialist. However, if the abdomen is involved, you would see a doctor who specializes in the stomach and intestines, known as a gastroenterologist. Depending on the results of diagnostic tests, you may be referred to cancer specialists (oncologists).
HOW ARE ASBESTOS-RELATED ILLNESSES DIAGNOSED?
After taking a medical history, discussing signs and symptoms, confirming a prior history of asbestos exposure, and completing a physical examination, the physician will typically send the patient for some diagnostic tests. The most common test for this purpose is a chest x-ray but the chest x-ray cannot identify the presence of the actual asbestos fibers since they are so small. The chest x-ray identifies the early signs of lung disease caused by asbestos. Lung function tests are also ordered. Lung function tests involve several techniques (such as breathing into a tube or walking for six minutes) to asses the functioning of the lungs.
A computerized axial tomography (CT) scan is more sensitive than a chest x-ray at detecting asbestos-related lung disease. CT scanning is a more advanced imaging technique that uses x-rays and computer technology to produces more clear and detailed pictures than a traditional x-ray.
Identifying the presence of asbestos fibers in the lungs can involve a biopsy, in which an area of lung tissue was removed via surgery and studied under the microscope. Another option is to undergo a bronchoscopy, in which the lungs are rinsed and the materials captured are studied under a microscope. This is less invasive than a biopsy. These tests cannot tell whether an asbestos-related disease will occur and cannot determine how much asbestos exposure may have occurred. Asbestos fibers can be detecting in urine samples, feces (poop) samples, or mucus samples but again, these tests cannot determine how much asbestos may be in a person’s lungs.
WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON SOURCES OF ASBESTOS EXPOSURE?
The most common sources of asbestos exposure are a) jobs that involve mining or milling asbestos b) jobs that involve the use or manufacturing of asbestos-containing products, and c) living near the above job sites. These job sites commonly include the construction industry (especially building demolition, repairs, and renovation such as drywall and asbestos removal and insulation work), manufacturing plants of asbestos products, ship building/ship repair, firefighting, and automotive brake and clutch repair work.
Asbestos exposure in the U.S. has been prominent since the 1940.s It is estimated that about 1.3 million employees in construction and general industry face significant asbestos exposure on the job. Another common source of asbestos exposure is living in the presence of deteriorating, damaged, or disturbed asbestos-containing products. Asbestos material that crumbles easily when handled or that has been scraped, sawed, or sanded into a powder is more likely to cause a health hazard.
Due to the presence of asbestos in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, hundreds of tons (some say 1,000 tons) of asbestos materials were released into the air during the attacks of 9/11/01. Particularly vulnerable would be people with longer exposures during the tragedy such as firefighters, police, paramedics, volunteers, construction workers, nearby residents, and nearby students. Many of the emergency service workers developed cancer at an unusually high rate after the collapse of the Twin Towers and this is believed to be due to workers breathing in a mixture of asbestos and other toxic substances.
Due to presence of asbestos on ships, the most susceptible U.S. military veterans to asbestos-related disease are those from the Navy, especially if they served between 1930 and 1970. This is because nearly every ship and ship-yard built by the Navy was fitted with numerous asbestos containing materials. Asbestos was widely used by every branch of the military before the 1970s. As a result, hundreds of thousands of U.S. military veterans were exposed to asbestos or asbestos containing products during their service.
Many people have also developed asbestos-related illnesses after being exposed to asbestos fibers from tremolite-asbestos whitewashes in homes.
WHERE CAN I FIND AN ACCREDITED LABORATORY TO TEST FOR ASBESTOS?
If you are uncertain whether a material at home contains asbestos, a professional asbestos inspector can test the material for you. This is recommended before any home remodeling is done. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) keeps a list of accredited asbestos laboratories under the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP). You may call NIST at (301) 975-4016.
WHAT IF ASBESTOS IS IN MY HOME?
Asbestos is most common in older homes. If the product containing asbestos is in good condition, the best thing to do is to leave it alone because material in good condition generally will not release asbestos fibers. Attempts should be made to prevent these materials from being damaged, touched, or disturbed. Periodic visual inspection for damage is suggested by the EPA. Click here for common places where asbestos can be found in older houses.
If a product containing asbestos becomes damaged (unravels, frays, breaks), the area should be immediately isolated. In other words, keep people and pets away from the area. Refrain from further disturbing the material. For example, do not touch it or walk on it. An asbestos professional should then be consulted. The EPA recommends receiving asbestos testing from one company and asbestos removal from another company to avoid conflict of interest. Often, asbestos containing material does not need to be removed but can be repaired by encapsulating or enclosing it. Improper removal of asbestos can release asbestos fibers in the home, endangering the health of people in the home. Proper procedures need to be followed when removing wood stove door gaskets that may contain asbestos, in order to reduce exposure. Damaged or worn stove-top pads, asbestos gloves, or ironing board covers should be discarded.
Local and federal health and environmental agencies can be contacted for information on proper handling and disposal procedures. The EPA recommends that asbestos contractors be selected based on careful discussions of the problems in the home as well as the steps that will be taken to clean and remove the asbestos.
IS IT TRUE THAT ASBESTOS HAS BEEN FOUND IN TALC AND CRAYONS?
Talc is sometimes contaminated with asbestos. Talc is a mineral ingredient that was sometimes used to strengthen crayons. In 2000, two government-certified testing laboratories contracted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, found that the tremolite and anthophyllite forms of asbestos were present in three out of eight bigger brands of crayons (4 from the U.S., 4 overseas): Crayola, RoseArt, and Prang. In Crayola crayons, the tests found asbestos levels from 0.05% in Carnation Pink to 2.86% in Orchid. In Rose Art crayons, asbestos levels ranged from 0.03% in Brown to 1.20% in Orange. In Prang crayons, the asbestos range was from 0.3% in Periwinkle to 0.54% in Yellow. Overall, 32 of 40 different types of crayons tested from these three brands contained more than trace amounts of asbestos, and eight others crayons contained trace amounts of asbestos.
Initially, the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), an industry organization that tested crayon safety on behalf of the crayon manufacturers, stated that the results must be wrong. However, ACMI later acknowledged that they do not test for asbestos. Within three weeks of the published findings, more than 30 government certified labs around the country tested crayons and almost all found asbestos.
Crayola hired Richard J. Lee to analyze the crayons. Richard J. Lee is a scientific expert who had testified 250 times on behalf of the asbestos injury. He conducted three tests on two crayons and concluded that they were negative for asbestos. Crayola put out a statement citing scientific experts who stated crayons are asbestos free and that the study conducted by the original laboratory likely misidentified non-asbestos fibers as asbestos fibers.
To try to resolve the issue, The Research Triangle Institute, one of the world’s leading research institutes, conducted a self-funded 10-month study of asbestos levels on crayons as well as the analyses done by other researchers across the country. Their study concluded that there were small amounts of asbestos in Crayola crayons and significantly larger quantities of asbestos-like fibers present. No quantifiable amounts of asbestos fibers were found in Rose Art crayons. The conflicting results of prior studies appeared to be due to inconsistent and obsolete government methods for detecting asbestos.
Interestingly, the main source if the talc used in most U.S. crayons was the R.T. Vanderbilt talc mine in Gouvernour, NY (a company that Richard J. Lee had also worked with). Hundreds of workers from that mine have died or were dying from diseases caused by asbestos fibers in the lung. There have been conflicting study results as to the presence of asbestos in this talc mine but the mine company repeatedly assured people that there was no asbestos in talc from their mine. Part of this conflict is due to disagreement about how to technically define and classify asbestos. For example, if fibers very similar in structure to asbestos (known as transitional fibers) are present, a researcher or company worker may say that there is no asbestos present even though the fibers may have similar effects compared to genuine asbestos.
Although many analyses did not find asbestos in this talc mine, in June 2000, the federal government, via the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), asked crayon manufacturers to voluntarily stop including talc in their crayons because of their test results. Specifically, the CPSC used two laboratories to test 5 Crayola crayons, 4 from Prang, and one from Roseart and found extremely low levels of antophylite asbestos and cleavage fragments of tremolite in some of the crayons. CPSC considered the amount of asbestos insignificant compared to the much larger amount of transitional fibers (known as magnesio-anthophyllite) found in the crayons.
That month, Binney & Smith (the maker of Crayola crayons) and other crayon manufacturers (RoseArt*, Prang), agreed to stop using talc in their crayons and changed the crayon ingredients in the United States. This was to avoid confusion amongst consumers, while also ensuring them that their crayons were safe. While the CPSC stated that harm to children was unlikely to non-existent since the fibers were embedded in the crayon wax, others have pointed out that some children eat crayons and that the fibers may be freed when the crayons break. However, CPSC stated they saw no hazard from ingesting crayons.
*RoseArt stated they voluntarily removed talc from crayons around March 1999.
HAVE I BEEN EXPOSED TO ASBESTOS?
Even if you do not work with asbestos, you have very likely been exposed to it. Asbestos can be found in the outdoor air and drinking water. Studies have shown that among people who do not work with asbestos that there are millions of asbestos fibers in the lungs and tens of thousands of asbestos bodies. An asbestos body is an asbestos fiber inside the body that has been coated with an iron-rich material.
Asbestos occurs in natural geographic deposits. Asbestos from such areas are know as naturally occurring asbestos (NOA). The health risk of NOA exposure is not completely known. Current U.S. federal regulations do not address NOA exposure. Many populated areas are near shallow, natural asbestos deposits. These deposits occur in 20 U.S. States. In California, such deposits are present in 50 of 58 counties. One study of 3,000 mesothelioma patients in California found that the closer one lived to rock deposits likely to contain asbestos, the more likely one was to develop mesothelioma. For every 6 miles someone lived away from an asbestos source, the risk of developing mesothelioma decreased by 6%. By contrast, there was no such association in 890 prostate cancer patients, which makes sense since asbestos has no known association with prostate cancer.
WHAT HAPPENED IN EL DORADO COUNTRY, CALIFORNIA REGARDING ASBESTOS?
An interesting situation occurred in El Dorado County, California due to natural amphibole asbestos formation at the surface. The asbestos had been identified in the 1950s by the state’s Division of Mines and Geology but the materials were bulldozed and scraped over the ground to make way for building new homes. The EPA tested the area in 2004 and found high levels of asbestos. However, many in the community mounted political pressure on the EPA and they agreed not to declare the area a Superfund site (hazardous waste site). Asbestos found in the high school was cleaned in August 2004. In May 2005, the EPA announced that almost every one of 400 air samples tested there contained asbestos. Most contained tremolite asbestos.
The full EPA report from El Dorado can be viewed here. The main findings of the study were that asbestos was present at elevated levels in the air at breathing heights for children and adults. In addition, it was found that asbestos may be present on some or all of the playing fields that were studied as an infield mix.
In November 2005, the National Stone, Sand & Gravel (NSSG) Association published a study (prepared by the Richard J. Lee Group, Inc.) entitled, Evaluation of EPA’s Analytical Data from the El Dorado Hills Asbestos Evaluation Project. If the name Richard J. Lee sounds familiar, he was involved with the Crayola crayon asbestos tests described earlier. The study contained five main criticisms of the EPA study: 1) that 63% of the fibers studied were not technically asbestos, 2) that the EPA laboratory did not comply with the quality assurance standards set forth by the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program, 3) the soil samples did not demonstrate the presence of amphibole asbestiform minerals, 4) the methods used by EPA cannot differentiate between asbestos fibers and non-asbestos materials, and 5) that the EPA study really showed no significant exposure to the type of amphibole asbestos associated with health risks.
In April 2006, the EPA published a response refuted each of the points made by the NSSG. Overall, the EPA stated that the NSSG study made largely unsupported and incorrect conclusions. The EPA asked the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct an independent study of the El Dorado County area to address the concerns raised in the NSSG report.
The USGS then studied amphibole asbestos in rock and soil in the area. The report of their study confirmed the EPA’s findings that a particularly dangerous type of asbestos was present in the area that may be a health threat. The vast majority of the samples studied contained actinolie, magnesio-hornblende (a type of mineral), and tremolite, in that order of abundance based on chemical analysis as opposed to analyzing their morphology (structure). The USGS agreed with NSSG that most of the particles studied did not conform to the traditional morphological (structural) definition of commercial grade asbestos. The USGS report stated it was difficult to define the asbestos content in the study from a health perspective and deferred this decision to the health community. They suggested a collaborative research effort to develop a better understanding of the potential health effects of naturally occurring asbestos.
In August 2011, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) published a document about asbestos in the El Dorado region and concluded that efforts to minimize exposure to naturally occurring asbestos there was warranted because a lifetime of exposure could increase the risk of asbestos-related disease.
WHAT WAS FOUND IN FAIRFAX COUNTY, VIRGINIA, REGARDING ASBESTOS?
Large areas of Fairfax County, Virginia were found to have large areas of tremolite, asbestos in the ground. As a result, the county monitored air quality at construction sites, assessed soil from affected areas, and required new sites to lay 6-inches of clean, stable material over the ground, to diminish the health effects of asbestos.
HOW IS ASBESTOS IDENTIFIED IN THE ENVIRONMENT?
Asbestos is identified in the environment by using a very powerful microscope known as an electron scanning microscopes, phase contrast microscopes (PCM), or polarized light microscopes(PLM). Gravimetric techniques are sometimes also used, which is a very precise analysis that studies the mass of a solid. ). PCM can detect fibers as small as 0.25 micrometers. PLM can detect fibers as low as 1 micrometer. Only an electron microscope, however, can identify the smallest, most hazardous fibers (i.e., as small as 0.01 micrometers. The more sensitive the test, the more likely it will detect asbestos fibers.
WHY WAS ASBESTOS SO POPULAR?
Asbestos was very popular with builders and manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th century because it was very resistant to fire, heat, corrosion, and damage from chemicals and electricity. In fact, it is so heat resistant that it is virtually insoluble, meaning that it is almost impossible to dissolve. It also does not conduct electricity, which is why it is resistant to it. It is easy to use, can be woven, is good at absorption, and does not cost much money. Asbestos also has a high tensile strength, meaning that it is resistant to stretching and pulling. All of these features resulted in it mostly being used for building materials (e.g., for insulation, roof shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products), friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmissions (e.g., automatic) parts, and heat-resistant fabrics, coatings, packaging, and gaskets (sealant material between matched machine parts to prevent the escape of gas or fluid).
Asbestos is usually mixed with cement when used as a product to resist fire or heat. When this is done, the product is called fiber cement which is used as a building material such as asbestos-cement shingles. Asbestos has also been woven into fabric or mats when used as a product to resist fire or heat. Many buildings in the U.S. constructed before the late 1990s contain asbestos.
IS ASBESTOS BANNED IN ALL COUNTRIES?
No, but asbestos has been partly or completely banned in about 60 countries (including those in the European Union). In 1999, the European Union voted to ban use of asbestos by 2005 and does not allow for asbestos to be extracted, manufactured, or processed. It is only allowed in the United States and Europe in very limited circumstances. The amphibole form of asbestos was banned by much of the western world by the mid-1980s. Some manufacturers have voluntarily limited use of asbestos. Below are some details regarding the use of asbestos in specific countries (note that asbestos is mined on six continents):
ARGENTINA: Asbestos has been banned since January 1, 2003 in Arentina.
AUSTRALIA: In Australia, the 1970s saw increased concerns about asbestos health risks and mining for the material was stopped in 1983. In 1989, asbestos use was phased out in Australia. A ban was introduced in 1991 although some building materials that had already been in storage were still being used for years after 1991. On 12/31/03, Australia banned the use and importation of asbestos. The ban does not cover asbestos material or products already in use at the time the ban began.
In 2005, Queensland, Australia began regulating the management, removal, and disposal of asbestos. This required handlers of asbestos materials to have a class B license for bonded asbestos (which is more compact or “non-friable”) and a class A license for friable (easily breakable) asbestos. The regulations were facilitated by national codes of practice set forth by the then National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC), which is now called Safe Work Australia.
The town of Wittenoom, in Western Australia, was built around a crocidolite asbestos mine, which contaminated the entire town. The town was shut down in 1966 and in 2007 it was stripped of its official status so it could be removed from maps and road signs. It is now a ghost town and roads have been closed that lead to contaminated areas.
Although Australia only has 1/3 of England’s population, it has about the same number of asbestos related deaths per year (3,000).
BRAZIL: São Paulo State is one of four Brazilian states which banned asbestos. This was done through state law 12,684/2007. This law only bans the use of chrysotile asbestos (since other types of asbestos were banned previously), but also bans the transport of asbestos through the State, and bans all other industrial and commercial activities involving raw asbestos and products containing asbestos. This ban was upheld by the Brazilian Supreme Court in 2008. It is believed that this decision will eventually be extended to the entire country.
CANADA: In May of 1998, Canada requested consultations before the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Commission about France prohibiting the importation and sale of asbestos in 1996. Canada officially went before the WTO in 1999 to discuss the matter. Canada’s position was that the French were violating provisions of the Agreements on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (also known as the SPS agreement), the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (also known as the TBT agreement), and the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, all which were designed to increase free trade. The European Commission claimed that asbestos substitutes has been developed that were safer for human health and that the French prohibition was fully justified for public health reasons and not discriminatory. The European Commission cited significant scientific data in favor of the asbestos ban. The WTO affirmed France’s right to the ban in 2000.
Canada eventually broke off consultations with the European Union and claimed that chrysotile asbestos is much less dangerous than other types of asbestos, which Canada does not export. Canada continues to use chyrsotile asbestos in new construction projects across the country. The Canadian position was bolstered by The Chyrsotile Institute (which is funded by the asbestos injury), which stated that chyrsotile asbestos does not pose an environmental risk. Canada is currently the only G8 country opposed to asbestos being listed as a hazardous chemical. Canada has pressured other countries such as Chile to avoid chrysotile bans.
As a result of Canada’s asbestos policy, it has been the focus of criticism. An example would be the criticism Canada received at the 2011 Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. In addition, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) which is an Australian trade union, pointed out that most asbestos exports go to developing countries.
The only asbestos mines still operating in Canada are in Quebec. They were owned by American and British corporations until the Quebec government confiscated Asbestos Corporation Limited from its American parent, General Dynamics (which is a defense contractor). In the early 1990s, all remaining asbestos mines and mills were sold to the private sector by Quebec. In 2008, Quebec was the fifth largest producer of asbestos in the world behind Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Brazil.
In 2009, Natural Resources Canada, a department of the Canadian government focused on Canadian natural resources, published a fact sheet stating that chyrsotile asbestos is not as dangerous as once believed and that current technology and knowledge can control the health risks and environmental harm posed by the substance. Quebec exports 95% of its chyrsotile, mostly to Asian and poor countries.
CHILE: Chile banned asbestos in 2001.
CHINA: India continues widespread use of asbestos.
CROATIA: Asbestos was banned in 2006 but the ban was reversed after six weeks due to political and economic pressure.
DEVELOPING COUNTRIES: Developing countries continue widespread use of asbestos. It is present in millions of homes, schools, sheds, factories, and shelters. Most commonly, asbestos is used as a component of roofing and side walls as corrugated asbestos cement sheets or “A/C sheets.” A/C stands for asbestos/cement. There has been no significant change in the production and use of A/C sheets in developing countries despite the widespread restrictions of asbestos in developed nations.
ENGLAND: It has been estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 people a year die in England from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. Annual deaths are predicted to rise through 2020. In England, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) agency has promoted strong controls on the handling of asbestos due to the health risks described elsewhere in this article. The HSE does not assume that there is a minimal threshold below which a person is at no risk of developing since this cannot be quantified for practical purposes. There is no scientific consensus for a minimum threshold but if such a threshold does exist, it must be very low.
The Control of Asbestos Regulation was passed in England 2006, which brought together three prior sets of Regulations designed to prohibit asbestos (Asbestos Prohibition), control asbestos at work (Control of Asbestos at Work), and licensing of asbestos (Asbestos Licensing). The Regulations prohibit importing, supplying, and using all forms of asbestos and were designed to minimize the use and disturbance of asbestos in British workplaces. They continued the ban for blue and brown asbestos in 1985 and for white asbestos in 1999 (which is the date asbestos was considered to have been banned in that country). They also continue to ban the second-hand use of asbestos products such as asbestos cement sheets, boards, and tiles, including panels covered with paint or textured plaster that contain asbestos.
It is important to note that in England, the asbestos ban applies to new use of asbestos. Some buildings in England made before 1999 may still have areas containing asbestos. Such areas include concrete water tanks and old bath panels. If existing materials containing asbestos are in good condition, they may be left in place, with their condition observed to ensure they are not disturbed. The Regulations noted above provide guidelines on how to best manage asbestos in existing use. Any owner of non-domestic properties (e.g., offices, factories, shops, hotels, etc.) in England constructed after 1999 has to establish an asbestos register and have a plan to manage the risk of asbestos. Owners of common parts of domestic buildings have the same responsibilities. The removal of asbestos from non-domestic property is closely controlled by the HSE. For example, high risk products such as thermal insulation must be removed under controlled conditions by licensed contractors.
In 2005, there was a case in England in which thousands of workers were compensated for widespread or localized plaques in the lung (known as pleural plaques) that were believed to be due to negligent exposure to asbestos. It was compensable at the time because although the plaques did not cause symptoms, they are associated with diffuse pleural thickening, which impairs lung functioning. However, there was significant dispute as to how probable it was that asbestos would cause pleural plaques or other asbestos-related diseases.
Insurers responded that the plaques were only a marker for asbestos exposure as opposed to an injury. Initially, this argument was rejected by Justice Holland. However, on 10/17/07, the House of Lords affirmed the decision by the Court of Appeal, ruling that workers with pleural plaques due to asbestos exposure could not seek compensation because it is not a disease. This is also the case in Northern Ireland, but there are legislative proposals (similar to that enacted in Scotland in 2009), to allow pleural plaques to be considered an injury that can be the basis of litigation.
A relatively recent case in England resulted in compensation of 140,000 pounds (about 210,000 U.S. dollars) for pain and suffering to Michelle Campbell, paid for by the Ministry of Defense. She had been exposed to asbestos when sitting on her grandfather’s lap and wearing his hat while he was still dirty from working around asbestos insulation materials. She began to suffer shortness of breath in December 2005 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in January 2006. Treatment was stopped in June 2006 due to no further effectiveness. The case further highlights how asbestos cases will continue in second generation family members who were exposed to asbestos second-hand. There have been other cases of people developing asbestos-related illness due to exposure to clothing (e.g., shoes), equipment, skin, and hair of workers that were contaminated with asbestos.
In May 2006, the House of Lords ruled that there should be reduced compensation for asbestos injures when a single company could not be held responsible. Some condemned the ruling, stating that it overturned traditional Scottish law pertaining to such cases and that it violated natural justice. Due to the criticism, the ruling was overturned by Section Three of the 2006 Compensation Act.
One of the most interesting recent cases was decided in February 2010. In the case, Della Sabin tried to receive compensation due to her husband’s death from asbestosis. A major issue in the case was how many asbestos fibers needed to be present in the lungs for a claim to be valid. Researchers at Llandough Hospital put the minimum number at 20 million. The claimant’s husband had 7 million fibers at the time of his death. A later U.S. study stated that her husband lived 40 years after exposure and that a large number of fibers had cleared from his body naturally. It was estimated that he likely had about 35 million fibers per gram 20 years prior. The judge preferred this data and ruled in the claimant’s favor.
Insurance and reinsurance companies in England have noted that asbestos claims have caused significant problems for their industry. In 2002, a spokesman for Equitas, a reinsurance vehicle that assumes the liabilities for the Lloyd’s of London insurance market, stated that asbestos claims were the biggest single threat to Lloyd’s of London’s existence. Investors of Lloyd’s of London have filed lawsuits against them for claiming that they misrepresented pending losses from asbestos claims.
FRANCE: In 1996, France announced that it would ban the importing and selling asbestos. The ban went into effect on 1/1/97. The World Trade Organization upheld the ban in 2000 after Canada complained about it. In 2006, France called for a worldwide asbestos ban.
HONG KONG: The use of asbestos in new construction projects has been banned in Hong Kong for health and safety reasons.
INDIA: India continues widespread use of asbestos without any restriction. On 1/21/11, the Indian Supreme Court refused to ban asbestos after a public interest lawsuit was filed in 2004 by a non-governmental organization. India is considered the world’s biggest importer of asbestos, using more than 7.5 million tons since the 1960s.
ITALY: Italy fully banned asbestos in 1992 and established a thorough plan for reducing contamination in housing and industry.
JAPAN: In 1971, Japan (i.e., Tokyo) ordered companies handling asbestos to install ventilators and check health regularly. However, they did not ban the crocidolite and amosite forms of asbestos until 1995 and did not ban all forms of asbestos until October 2004. This was after news had surfaced in 2005 that hundreds of workers had died in the past few decades from diseases related to asbestos. Due to the late ban on asbestos, the government has been held responsible for asbestos related diseases.
NEW ZEALAND: In 1984, New Zealand banned the import of the amosite and crocidolite forms or asbestos. In 2002, the import of the chrysotile form of asbestos was banned in New Zealand.
RUSSIA: Russia continues widespread use of asbestos.
SAUDIA ARABIA: Asbestos has been banned in Saudi Arabia since 1998.
UNITED STATES: The Environmental Working Group Action Fund estimates that 10,000 people in the United States die from diseases caused by asbestos. This includes one out of every 125 men over age 50.
In 1970, asbestos was one of the first hazardous air pollutants regulated under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act of 1970. In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed. In 1986, subchapter II of this Act (amended in 1990) authorized the EPA to impose requirements for asbestos reduction in schools and required asbestos inspectors to be accredited.
In 1989, the EPA issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule under TSCA, which banned most asbestos products. EPA research indicated that the ban would cost between $450 million and $800 million and save about 200 lives over a 13-year period. In 1991, this regulation was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans when the EPA was sued by asbestos manufacturers, represented by a company known as Corrosion Proof Fittings. The 5th Circuit Court stated that the EPA had not provided adequate evidence that alternative products would be safer. As a result of the court’s decision, the following asbestos-containing products remain banned: flooring felt, rollboard (a type of insulation), and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper such as millboard. Millboard is a stiff heavy paperboard used mostly for book covers. Any new uses of asbestos were also banned.
However, there are still many consumer products that can legally contain small amounts of asbestos. One example includes cement asbestos pipes which are used in construction. Until the mid-1980s, small amounts of white asbestos were used in manufacturing Artex, which is a decorative stipple finish. Lesser known suppliers of Artex were still adding white asbestos to the product until 1999. Since existing Artex may contain white asbestos fibers, removing it is not recommended. For more information see the EPAs clarification on the Asbestos Materials Ban.
The EPA has proposed that there should be no more than seven million fibers per liter of drinking water for long fibers (those greater or equal to 5 micrometers). The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has set limits of 100,000 fibers with lengths greater than or equal to 5 micrometers per cubic meter of workplace air for 40 hour work weeks and eight hour shifts. One cubic meter is roughly a bit less than a space covering 3 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet.
Asbestos is not a material covered by Superfund’s innocent purchaser defense. This defense claims that one cannot be held liable for owning or operating a contaminated site. Normally, this defense would hold that one cannot be held liable if he/she did not cause the contamination and if he/she had a reasonable investigation of the property and that it was declared clean.
On 7/31/01, testimony on the health effects of asbestos was heard before the Senate Subcommittee of the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee. Doctors, scientists, and members of the public called for the U.S. and other countries to ban asbestos. In 2004, it was estimated that asbestos remains a hazard for 1.3 million workers in the U.S. construction industry and for maintenance workers of buildings and instruments.
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF ASBESTOS LITIGATION IN THE UNITED STATES AND OTHER COUNTRIES?
Litigation related to asbestos injuries and property damage is the longest running and most expensive mass tort in U.S. history with over 6,000 defendants and 600,000 claimants. A tort is a wrong that violates a civic duty (as opposed to a contractual duty) owed to someone else. An example would involve exposing workers to asbestos and making them ill. The focus of these lawsuits tends to be on recovering the cost of medical expenses, loss of income, and punitive damages.
When asbestos was more widely recognized as a health hazard in the 1920s, workers compensation cases related to asbestos were filed and resolved in secrecy. The first lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers were brought in 1929. Legal cases related to asbestos increased significantly in the 1970s through the present. Asbestos cases increased significantly in the Supreme Court during the 1980s.
Asbestos lawsuits have been filed against people who owned buildings where asbestos-containing products were installed, manufacturers of machinery that allegedly required asbestos-containing parts to work correctly, retailers of asbestos-containing products (e.g., hardware, automotive parts, and home improvement stores), banks that financed ships or buildings where asbestos was installed (based on the assumption that the lender should have studied the risks involved before hand), and corporations that allegedly conspired with asbestos manufacturers to purposely hide asbestos dangers. An example would be MetLife Insurance, which worked with the Johns-Manville Corporation in the case described below.
In June of 1982, a retired boiler maker, James Cavett, was awarded a record 2.3 million dollars in compensatory damages and 1.5 million dollars in punitive damages against the Johns-Manville Corporation (JMC) for mesothelioma. JMC filed for bankruptcy (which protects the company from its creditors) in August 1982, which is one of the largest and richest corporations to have done so as it was ranked 181 on the Fortune 500 list. The company then became the target of over 160,000 asbestos related lawsuits. Thus, the Cavett case is seen is a landmark legal case regarding asbestos.
Court documents have shown that JMC had a history of hiding the dangers of asbestos from workers, their families, and the public. One of the most shocking documents was the release of an inter-office memo from a JMC medical employer to corporate headquarters which states: ”...The fibrosis of this disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But, as long as the man is not disabled it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and the company can benefit by his many years of experience...”.
By the early 1990s, more than half of the 25 largest asbestos manufacturers in the U.S declared bankruptcy. This tends to be Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which is different from traditional bankruptcy, because the company is not forced to close or liquidate its assets. Asbestos companies that filed for bankruptcy included Standard Insulation, Unarco, Amatex, Carey-Canada, Forty-Eight Insulations, Celotex, Eagle-Pitcher Industries, National Gypsum, and UNR Industries.
As noted above, bankruptcy protects the company from its creditors and it can help escape litigation. That is, when the company is filing for bankruptcy, lawsuits cannot be filed against the company. Under strict rules, a court approves company reorganization which includes a settlement trust funded by insurance, cash, and company stock. Once in bankruptcy, the companies transfer existing claims to the special bankruptcy trust. Lawsuits filed against the trust usually move more quickly through the legal system compared to lawsuits filed against solvent companies. It does not involve a deposition, trial, or a public courtroom and the usual statute of limitations do not apply. Rather, it involves private arbitration.
In 1997 and 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected two large class-action settlements (Amchem Products v. Windsor et al AND Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp) designed to limit liability from asbestos claims, because they would exclude future claimants who would develop asbestos-related illness. In doing so, The Supreme Court was addressing the 20 to 25 year period that it can take asbestos related diseases to develop.
Through 2002, about 730,000 people brought claims against 8,400 businesses (defendants). These cases typically involve multiple claimants with similar symptoms. The total cost of asbestos litigation in the U.S. is expected to eventually exceed 200 billion dollars. Current trends indicate that the rate at which people across the world will be diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases will continue to increase, at least through 2020. A large, multi-district litigation claim has been pending in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for over 20 years. Many of the litigation cases related to scarring causes by asbestos have been resolved but there remain many cases brought forwards related to cancer and asbestosis leading to a prognosis of impending death. Over the next 40 years, it is estimated that the number of pending federal asbestos litigation cases will increase from 200,000 in 1999 to 700,000.
Asbestos companies sometimes settle out of court or claim that their workers have not had health problems. One of the major problems with asbestos litigation has been how to determine which company is liable since workers who become ill often worked in many settings where asbestos exposure occurred, making it difficult to impossible to prove exactly which setting caused the illness. Or, if it can be proved that work in multiple settings caused an asbestos-related disease, it is difficult to impossible to prove which setting causes what degree of illness. This problem has slowed the progress of such court cases through the legal system. Some have criticized many asbestos lawsuits as without merit, resulting in a clogged court system. In the midst of lawmakers debating reform of the tort system, the American Bar Association came out in 2006 with a series of recommendations designed to protect the rights of injured claimants if the current tort based system was changed to an administrative system.
Another problem in civil lawsuits is that it can take decades for an asbestos-related disease to manifest. Most countries do not allow for a legal complaint to be filed in an asbestos case after a long period (e.g., 6 years in Malaysia) has elapsed from the time the wrongful exposure occurred. However, other countries such as Australia have changed their laws to allow complaints to begin starting at the time of discovery rather than when the exposure occurred.
The Research and Development Corporation (RAND) has organized certain legal information for people who claim to be victims form natural resource accidents. The information is readily available for workers and has helped many workers earn compensation from their companies. The Institute for Civil Justice, which is a division of RAND, has helped organize past cases to help determine fair compensation for workers.
The U.S. government has prosecuted dozens of cases in which violations of the Clean Air Act and RICO (Rackateer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Acts are alleged. These cases often involve contractors who hire undocumented workers who have not been properly trained to illegally remove asbestos. This is considered an environmental crime because it exposes people to potentially fatal and extremely painful lung disease. As an example, on 4/2/98, three men were indicted for conspiring to use a homeless man for illegal asbestos removal from an old Wisconsin manufacturing plant.
Another example was when a father and son (Alexander and Raul Salvagno) from New York were given the longest federal jail sentences for environmental crime in U.S. history as a result of a 10 year scheme to illegally remove asbestos. The pair (and other workers in their company) illegally removed asbestos with a technique that left high levels of indoor asbestos behind. This was concealed by the father, who secretly and illegally co-owned an accredited laboratory (Analytical Laboratories of Albany, Inc) which colluded with their asbestos removal company to create up to 75,000 fraudulent lab results. The result was that their clients (e.g., schools, churches, hospitals, private residencies, etc) were falsely led to believe that their building was asbestos free. The Salvagnos also knowingly sent hundreds of workers without protective equipment to remove asbestos, which led to significant likelihood of death or harm to these individuals. Members of the public who were exposed to asbestos in the buildings were also put at elevated risk.
The Salvagnos were convicted on 18 counts of conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substance Control Act and actual violations of the Clean Air and RICO Acts. The RICO counts included obstruction of justice, money laundering, mail fraud, and rigging bids. The father and son received sentences of 25 and to 17.5 years in prison, respectively. Each were forced to give up about 2 million dollars in illegal proceeds and told to reinstitute about 23 million dollars to their victims.
In 2006, San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) (and a contractor) and three other individuals were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of violating safety standards while removing asbestos from pipes in Lemon Grove, California but not completing the necessary paperwork by the state, presumably to save time and/or money. Other charges were five counts of conspiracy, making false statements. In 2007, the charges were dismissed without prejudice which allowed for refilling in the future. Nearly identical charges were brought that year and the case was heard in federal court in June and July 2007. Some guilty verdicts were handed down (although the environmental director was found not guilty). In late 2007, a U.S. District Judge ruled that SDG&E and the workers deserved a new trial. Criminal charges were dropped against the companies in October 2009.
The amount of asbestos liability that asbestos companies have had has been a major source of concern for manufacturers and the insurance industry. Many court cases have focused on the amounts and methods of allocating compensation from asbestos claims. There have also been many government attempts to resolve existing and future asbestos cases due to the amounts and methods of allocating compensation.
As an example of the above, in 1999, The Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act was proposed in the U.S. in order to create a government agency responsible for trying to resolve asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits before they reached the court system. The goal was to reduce the burden that asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits caused in tying up the court systems. It would have done so by creating a $140 billion dollar national trust fund for individuals with a history of asbestos exposure and signs and symptoms of asbestos-related disease. The funding would have come from insurance companies and companies that mined, manufactured, and sold asbestos or asbestos products. The trust fund would have been administered through the Department of Labor - not the courts. Since the fund would have taken funds ahead of time that were held in bankruptcy trusts, it was not strongly supported by corporations or victims. The bill was not supported by the American Public Health Association or the Asbestos Workers Union. The bill would have prevented people affected by asbestos exposure to pursue compensation in state or federal courts.
In 2005, Dr. Philip Lanrigan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary against the proposed legislation. He stated that many of the provisions of the bills were not supported by medical science, that the diagnostic criteria for asbestos-related disease was inconsistent with those established by the American Thoracic Society, and that it would include too many victims of asbestos exposure. The Congress considered this legislation in 2005 but did not pass it.
In 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an Amendment to The Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act that would allow mesothelioma victims to receive 1.1 million dollars within 30 days of their claim’s approval. The amendment would have expanded those who were eligible to make asbestos claims to those exposed to asbestos from the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11/01 and construction debris from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita from 2005. However, the bill failed to leave the committee for several reasons including reliance on funding from private entities, the impact it would have on the U.S. budget process, and debate over a sunset provision (when the amendment would cease to be in effect).
In 2008, the Washington Supreme Court decided in the case Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings that companies can not be held negligent or liable for failing to warn people of the dangers of using their product in conjunction with another project that was not made, sold, or otherwise supplied by them. Other companies have used a similar defense.
Asbestos litigation continues in other countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and Japan.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT ASBESTOS USE?
Historically, asbestos was first used by humans at least 4,500 years ago. There is evidence that at that time there were people in East Finland (Lake Juojarvi) who used it (i.e., anthophyllite) to make their earthenware pots stronger. Some ancient kings were said to wear shrouds of asbestos so that when they were cremated it would preserve only their ashes and not allow it to mix with wood or other materials commonly used in funeral pyres that could easily set in fire. Some ancients were said to use asbestos to make wicks for lamps. In ancient times, asbestos was reportedly prescribed for diseases of the skin such as itchy skin even though it is now known that asbestos can cause itchy skin. However, it may be that the ancients were actually referring to soapstone because the two terms have often been confused throughout history.
Asbestos was first described by the Greek scholar, Theophrastus, in his text On Stones around 300 BC. Minerals were not named consistently in the ancient times as they are today. Therefore, this material was sometimes referred to as “amiantos” in Greek (which means pure or undefiled) and “amiante” in French. The Roman author, Pliny the Elder (who lived from 23 to 79 AD), is credited with using the word “asbestos” for the first time in his book, Natural History.
The ancient Sassanian (modern day = Iranian) king, Khosrow II Parviz (5th century AD), reportedly had a napkin made of asbestos that he cleaned by throwing it into the fire. Wealthy Persians (people from Persia, what is now Iran) impressed others by importing similar cloths from the Hiindu Kush (a mountain range from Afghanistan to Pakistan) and cleaning it by exposing it into fire. Some Persians believed that asbestos fibers were fur from a mythical animal named “samander” that lived in fire and died when exposed to water. The samander was an animal like a salamander and it led to the old myth that salamanders can tolerate fires.
The first Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (8th century AD), reportedly had a tablecloth made of asbestos. In the 11th century AD, the Iranian scholar, Biruni, referred to any cloths made of asbestos as “shostakeh” in his book, Gems. The Italian traveler, Marco Polo (1254-1324 AD) described being offered clothes that could not burn. He was told that the wool was from the salamander but he was smart enough not to believe this. Eventually, he was told that the clothes were made from minerals in the mountains that contained threads just like wool.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF MODERN ASBESTOS USE?
The U.S. asbestos industry began in 1858 when anthophyllite was mined and used for insulation by the Johns Company. By 1866, asbestos was used as insulation in the U.S. and Canada. The first asbestos mine for commercial purposes began development in 1874 in the Appalachian foothills of Quebec. Foothills are gradual increases in elevation at the bottom of a mountain range.
Between the 1920s and 1950s, asbestos was commonly used as a wicking material. A wick is a bundle of threads that draws up melted flammable material to be burned. In Australia, asbestos was commonly used between 1945 and 1980 for construction and in other industries. From 1952 to 1956, Kent’s cigarettes used crocidolite asbestos in its Micronite filter. By the mid 1900s, asbestos was also used for flooring, roofing, fire retardant coating, concrete, bricks, pipes, fireplace cement, gaskets resistant to fire, heat, and acid, insulation for pipes (e.g., steam lines, which are pipes containing steam) and ceilings, shoes, artificial Christmas snow, discs for vehicle clutches, lawn furniture, automobile brake pads (e.g., disc brake pads), fireproof drywall, and drywall joint compound.
In World War II, thousands of tons of asbestos were used to wrap the pipes, line the boilers, and to cover engine and turbine parts. In Japan, asbestos was used in the 1960s to manufacture ammonium sulfate (a type of salt) for rice production, and was sprayed on the ceilings, walls, and iron skeletons of railroad cars and buildings. Production of asbestos peaked in the 1970s, saw intermittent growth afterwards, and then dropped severely by the 1990s. Spray-applied asbestos fireproofing was used when constructing millions of homes throughout the world.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF HEALTH CONCERNS AND REGULATION REGARDING ASBESTOS?
BEFORE THE 1900s: The Roman author, Pliny the Elder (who lived from 23 to 79 AD), was traditionally credited with being the first to recognizes the harmful effects of asbestos on slaves, although this is actually not true when reading the primary sources of his writings. The health risks of asbestos were not realized until the 1800s. Britain was one of the first countries to realize that asbestos easily posed health risks when discussed in the annual reports of the Chief Inspector of Factories. The history of health risks from asbestos in more modern time periods are listed below.
1900s to 1910s: In 1906, what is likely the first study of deaths in asbestos workers was reported in France. The actual study described the causes of death in these workers as being due to generalized pneumoconiosis and chalicosis. Pneumoconiosis is a kind of lung disease caused by inhaling dust (often in mines). Chalicosis is a form of pneumoconisosis caused by inhaling fine particles of stone. The circumstances of the 50 workers who died and prompted the study has suggested to modern researchers that the main cause of death was exposure to asbestos or a mixture of asbestos and cotton dust.
In the early 1900s, a medical doctor from London named H. Montague Murray examined the body of a young factory worker who died in 1900. Dr. Murray testified about the death during a hearing about compensation related to industrial diseases. Dr. Murray testified that the results of his exam showed the presence of asbestos in the lung tissue. He also stated that breathing in asbestos dust contributed to or caused the worker’s death.
Around the same time, casual observations and examples were noted in the United States of workers becoming sick or dying when working with asbestos materials, particularly in mining towns. However, the observations were largely non-scientific and thus, could not provide a definite link. However, scientific studies began to mount which strengthened people’s confidence in the association between asbestos and negative health effects.
1920s to 1930s: By this time frame, asbestos was widely recognized as an occupational health risk. In Britain, a pathologist named William Edmund Cooke published a small study in the British Medical Journal (1924) entitled, “Fibrosis of the Lungs Due to the Inhalation of Asbestos Dust.” A pathologist is someone who interprets and diagnoses the changes caused by disease in tissues and body fluids. Dr. Cooke claimed that his study was important because it was the first in the English medical literature to definitely prove the health risks of asbestos. The study presented the cases of two workers. The first was of Nellie Kershaw, a 33-year-old woman who had been working in asbestos factories since age 13. She stopped working in 1922 but worked on and off for five years prior. She died on 3/15/24. Dr. Cooke examined her lungs, which showed extensive deposits of fibers along with additional examples of tissue damage. He noted that asbestos had long been suspected of causing chronic bronchitis and fibrosis. Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are airways that connect that windpipe to the lungs. Fibrosis is an overgrowth of scar tissue or connective tissue. Connective tissue is any tissue that surrounds and supports specialized structures in the body.
In 1927, Dr. Cooke published another study in the British Medical Journal. In it, he described the case of a 33-year-old man who had been the only survivor of 10 workers from the same work location. This was the same man who had been under the care of Dr. Montague and studied by Murray (see above) who died in 1900. The case is sometimes referred to as the Montague Murray case. This man had worked in the asbestos location for 10 years before being admitted to the hospital. Dr. Cooke named the disease that this man and Nellie Krenshaw had as “pulmomary asbestosis.” In fact, this was the title of his study. At the time, these were the only two records of death due to asbestos.
In the late 1920s, a large public health investigation took place in Britain to study the effects of asbestos dust on the lungs of 363 asbestos-textile workers. The study was triggered by the death of an asbestos worker in 1928 (known as Seiler’s case after the doctor who published the case in the British Medical Journal that same year). The report of the public health investigation was published in 1930 and is often referred to as the Merewether report (named after 1st author, E.R.A. Merewether). The title was “Report on Effects of Asbestos Dust on the Lungs and Dust Suppression on the Asbestos Laboratory.” The study found that 26%% (95 of 363) of the workers suffered from pulmonary fibrosis. The results of this investigation led to improved regulation of the manufacturing of asbestos products in the early 1930s. These regulations included medical examinations, developments of standards for the asbestos industry, and inclusion of the asbestos industry in the British Worker’s Compensation Act.
In 1927, the first known U.S. workers compensation claim was made for asbestos. In 1930, Dr. Ralph Mills published autopsy results of a 58-year old man who came to the Mayo Clinic in 1929 due to heart disease. The man worked in an asbestos mine in South America from 1911 to 1913, drilling asbestos-bearing rock. On exam (when the patient was alive), it was found that he had lung disease. He died two days after arriving to the hospital. The autopsy showed the presence of peculiar brown fibers in the lungs which looked like asbestos. The case was the first autopsy of an asbestos sufferer conducted in the United States.
In 1930, Johns-Manville, a major asbestos company at the time, produced an internal report about medical reports concerning deaths of asbestos workers. In 1932, the U.S. Bureau of Mines wrote a letter to asbestos manufacturer, Eagle-Picher, and stated ”It is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed.”
In 1933, the Metropolitan Life (Met Life) Insurance Company medical doctors found that 29% of workers in a Johns-Manville plant had asbestosis. Lawsuits were filed against the Johns-Manville Company by employees and the company settled 11 of them. The main condition of the settlement, however, was that the lawyer of the employees agreed to never again directly or indirectly file another lawsuit against them. Officials from this company, along with another asbestos company (Raybestos-Manhattan), edited an article about diseases of asbestos workers written by a Met Life insurance medical doctor. The changes to the article downplayed the dangers of asbestos dust. In 1935, these companies also instructed the editor of Asbestos magazine to publish nothing about asbestos. In 1936, a group of asbestos companies agreed to sponsor research on the health effects of asbestos dust. However, the condition was that these companies would maintain complete control of disclosure of the results. See the 1950s section below for why this will be important.
1940s: In 1947, an internal memo by produced by Owens-Corning (an insulation and building supply company) described “medical literature on asbestosis...scores of publications in which the lung and skin hazards of asbestos are discussed.” This shows that industry was aware of the dangers of asbestos. However, there was resistance from many companies to sharing this information with employees. For example, Charles Roemer, a former employee of Unarco (a material handling company), testified in federal court that he once met with Johns-Manville president, Lewis H. Brown and attorney, Vandiver Brown, in the 1940s. Mr. Roemer testified as follows:
“I’ll never forget, I turned to Mr. Brown, one of the Browns made this crack (that Unarco managers were a bunch of fools for notifying employees who had asbestosis), and I said, ‘Mr. Brown, do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they dropped dead?’ He said, ‘Yes. We save a lot of money that way.’”
In 1944, a Met Life insurance company report found 42 cases of asbestosis in 195 workers. This is a total of 21.5% and is consistent with other asbestosis rates reported by others.
1950s: In 1951, asbestos companies removed all references to cancer before allowing publication of research they sponsored (see 1936 above). However, one should not assume that there were not at least some people in the asbestos industry trying to warn people about the dangers of asbestos. For example, in 1952, Dr. Kenneth Smith, the medical director of Johns-Manville at the time, recommended that warning labels be attached to all products containing asbestos. However, the company did not implement his suggestion at the time. Dr. Smith later testified that this was likely a business decision since a warning label could reduce sales and have serious financial implications (e.g., less jobs, less money for stock holders).
In 1953, the safety director of the manufacturing company, National Gypsum, wrote a letter to the Indiana Division of Industrial Hygiene and recommended that acoustic plaster mixers wear respirators due to the asbestos contained in the product. Acoustic plaster is a type of texture finish that absorbs sound. The letter, however, was never sent in its original form (due to company concerns about the content of the letter) and was apparently modified.
1960s and 1970s: Through the 1970s, asbestos was used for roofing, flooring, heat insulation, and numerous other purposes (see earlier). For example, it was used for fire protection (e.g., for doors) on North Sea oil production platforms and rigs.
Modern Regulation: See other aspects of this entry, particularly the earlier section discussing asbestos regulations by country.
WHAT ARE THE CRITICISMS OF ASBESTOS REGULATION?
The main critic of asbestos regulation has been the asbestos industry. Fox News commentator, Steven Milloy, made news when he claimed that the World Trade Centers may have stood longer (reducing casualties) if New York City had not banned asbestos in spray fire-proofing in 1971. According to Milloy, asbestos insulation had been sprayed up to the 64th floor in the North Tower at the time of the ban. However, other sources stated that only the first 40 floors of the North Tower were fireproofed at the time of the ban and that of these, more than half of the floors were replaced with non-asbestos material. It is estimated that more than 1,000 tons of asbestos were released into the air when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11/01.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology did not reach the same conclusion as Mr. Milloy on the reason for the collapse. Essentially, regardless of how resistant to heat the fireproofing materials were, all lightweight fiber-based commercial fireproofing materials are vulnerable to the massive amount of energy that was produced by the impact of the planes.
Former Washington governor, Dixie Lee Ray, stated that the Challenger shuttle was destroyed because the maker of O-ring putty was pressured by the EPA to stop making putty that was laden with asbestos. However, the putty used on the Challenger when it exploded actually did contain asbestos and the O-ring putty was not considered responsible for the failure of the O-ring that caused the loss of the shuttle. The criticisms by Milloy and Ray are good examples of the criticism that government regulation do more harm than good and that asbestos replacements are inferior.
HOW IS ASBESTOS INSPECTED, RECYCLED AND DISPOSED?
Asbestos removal and reduction has become a large industry in the United States. There are strict removal and disposal laws in place to protect the public form asbestos in the air. The Clean Air Act requires wetting asbestos when it is removed, that it be strictly contained, and that the workers wear safety makes and gear.
Buildings contaminated with asbestos are typically renovated and demolished according to strict regulations by OSHA and the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs), which are set forth by the EPA. In England, the removal and disposal of asbestos and asbestos containing substances are controlled by the Control of Asbestos Regulations from 2006.
Asbestos is typically disposed of as hazardous waste in landfills in most developed countries. Some landfills are designated as asbestos landfills. Asbestos building materials must be taken to one of these landfills during demolition products, before the building is taken down so that the fibers do not get into the air. Asbestos can be recycled by changing it into a type of glass (known as silicate glass), which is harmless. When asbestos is heated to 1000-1250°C, it produces a mixture of non-hazardous phases of silicate (a type of mineral). At 1250°C, it turns into silicate glass. Specialized microwaving of asbestos can be used in an industrial manufacturing process to change asbestos and asbestos-containing waste into porcelain stoneware tiles, porous single-fired wall tiles, and ceramic bricks.
Interestingly, asbestos assessment is not a standard part of an ASTM Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (known as E 1527-05) but a request can be made for it to be evaluated as a non-scope item as part of a records search or visual inspection. There are typically two types of types of asbestos surveys (assessments) that can be done based on guidelines set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). ASTM has developed a standard practice (known as ASTM Standard E 2356-04) for conducting comprehensive surveys of buildings and facilities for the purpose of locating, identifying, quantifying and assessing asbestos-containing materials. Usually, a baseline survey is performed by an EPA or state licensed asbestos inspector. This type of survey is supposed to provides the buyer with sufficient information on asbestos at the facility. If asbestos is present, this often leads to a reduced assessment of the building’s value. The main reason for the reduction is due to future asbestos removal costs. The second type of asbestos survey is known as a design survey of functional areas. The owner or owner’s agent should consult ASTM Standard E 2356-04 to determine which type of survey is most appropriate.
In addition to ASTM Standard E 2356-04, the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants of the EPA and regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must be consulted to make sure that all statutory requirements are met such as notification requirements for demolition/renovation.
The EPA has included some but not all asbestos contaminated facilities on the Superfund National Priorities List. Facilities on this list are eligible for long-term action to remedy the hazardous waste problem.
WHAT MATERIALS ARE BEING USED INSTEAD OF ASBESTOS?
Since removing asbestos also removes the fire protection it provides, substitute materials to provide fire protection is required. The most common insulation material these days is fiberglass. Fiberglass is a fiber made of plastic that is reinforced by fine fibers of glass. However, the safety of fiberglass materials has been questioned since research shows that the composition of it causes similar toxicity as asbestos. Specifically, glass fibers less than 3 micrometers in diameter and greater than 20 micrometers in length have been shown to cause cancer and changes in the composition and activity of cells. Fiberglass and asbestos are actually both types of silicate fibers.
In Europe, the main insulators in houses are stone and glasswool. Glasswool is an insulating material made from fiberglass that is arranged in similar texture to wool.
For replacing asbestos that was used in fireproof fabric, Bal Dixit invented a highly texturized fiberglass fabric in 1978 known as Zetek. The fabric is lighter than asbestos, but has the same thickness, bulk, feel, and resistance to abrasion (rubbing) as asbestos. Zetek was texturized to eliminate some of the problems with fiberglass such as poor resistance to abrasion and poor seam strength. It does not carry the same health risks as asbestos. Another potential substitute is polybenzimadazole (PBI fiber), which is a synthetic(man-made) fiber that does not melt until 760 degrees Celsius and also does not readily ignite. Because of these characteristics, it is often used by fire departments and space agencies for fire and heat resistance.
Many companies that produced asbestos-cement products reinforced with asbestos fibers have developed fibers using organic fibers. One such cement product is known as Eternit. Another is known as Everite, which uses fibers called Nutec fibers that are made of organic fibers, silica, and ortland cement. Silica is a form of silicon, which is described in the beginning of the entry. Portland cement is the name for the most common type of cement used around the world. Another substitute has been cement bonded wood fiber, which is a mixture of ortland cement and wood chips.
Since the mid 1990s, most brake pads have been manufactured with linings made of ceramic, metallic, carbon, and aramid fiber (the fiber made in bulletproof vests). Stone fibers have been used in friction materials and gaskets (except specialty industrial gaskets). Silica and fiberglass have also been used as substitutes for other industrial use such as ropes, sleeves, tape, and textiles.
WHAT ARE THE EPA OFFICES THAT DEAL WITH ASBESTOS?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the federal agency responsible for environmental protection, as the name implies. It regulates the general public’s exposure to asbestos in buildings, the drinking water, and other areas of the environment. In addition to offering the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which is discussed elsewhere in this entry, the EPA also offers the Asbestos Omudsban, which focuses on asbestos in schools and handles questions and complaints. Like the TSCA, it also provides publications on controlling asbestos exposure in schools and other buildings. It has a toll-free hotline for small businesses, trade associations, and others seeking help, which it can do confidentially if needed. The EPA contains a list of EPA regional and state asbestos contacts.
The EPA published a brochure entitled Current Best Practices for Preventing Asbestos Exposure Among Brake and Clutch Repair Workers in April 2007. It includes work practices to reduce asbestos exposure for automotive professionals and home mechanics.
There are six EPA offices that deal with asbestos:
1. The Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards (OPAPS). This is part of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, which is dedicated to preserving and improving air quality in the U.S. It is responsible for implementing the Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP). NESHAP addresses milling, manufacturing and fabricating operations; demolition and renovation activities; waste disposal issues at active and inactive waste disposal sites; and the asbestos conversion processes.
2. The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP). This office regulates asbestos in school buildings and in certain asbestos products, and implements the Asbestos Model Accreditation Plan (MAP). MAP is used by the states as a standard for training and accrediting asbestos professionals. OCSPP also implements the Asbestos Worker Protection Rule which protects workers in states without Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Safety and Health Plans.
3. The Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA). This Office works with EPA Regional Offices, state governments, tribal governments, and other federal agencies to ensures compliance with U.S. environmental laws. Through compliance assistance, compliance incentives, and civil and criminal enforcement, OECA and its partners aim to maximize compliance and decrease threats to public health and the environment.
4. Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW). This office regulates contaminants in drinking water and maintains an asbestos fact sheet.
5. The Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT). This office manages programs under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). A TSCA hotline is available at (202) 554-1404 which provides technical assistance and information about asbestos programs implemented under TSCA. These programs include the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act (ASHAA), the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), and the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA). ASHAA was passed in 1984 and granted $600 million in federal money to schools that demonstrated a severe asbestos hazard and need for financial assistance. AHERA was passed in 1986 and required inspection of public and private non-profit primary and secondary schools for asbestos-containing building materials. ASHARA passed in 1990 and required accreditation of personnel working on asbestos activities in schools, and public and commercial buildings.
6. The Office of Research and Development (ORD). This office is the scientific research part of the EPA, which focuses on ways to prevent pollution, protect human health, reduce risk, help improve the quality of air, water, soil, and the way we use resources. Most relevant is the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) which is a database of human health effects that may result from exposure to various substances found in the environment. It provides consistent information on chemical substances for use in risk assessments, decision-making and regulatory activities. The information in IRIS is intended for those without extensive training in toxicology, but with some knowledge of health sciences.
7. Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER). OSWER provides policy, guidance, and direction for EPA’s solid waste and emergency response programs. Examples include land disposal of hazardous waste and underground storage tanks. It provides technical assistance to all levels of government to establish safe practices in waste management. OSWER runs the Brownfields program which supports state and local governments in redeveloping and reusing potentially contaminated sites. OSWER also manages the Superfund program to respond to abandoned and active hazardous waste sites, accidental oil and chemical releases, and encourages innovative technologies to address contaminated soil and groundwater.
WHAT OTHER FEDERAL AGENCIES HAVE MADE PROTECTIVE EFFORTS REGARDING ASBESTOS?
Numerous other federal agencies have made protective efforts regarding asbestos, including:
1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). ATSDR evaluates the human health effects of exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos and works closely with local, state, and federal agencies as well as tribal governments, health care providers, and communities to help prevent or reduce harmful human health effects from exposure to such substances. ATSDR also provides informational materials and resources for individuals and health care providers who are concerned about exposure to toxic substances and where to find occupational and environmental health clinics.
2. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC is designed to protect the public against unreasonable risks of injuries and deaths associated with consumer products, including those that contain asbestos. They have a 24-hour hotline where one can call to receive product safety information and report unsafe products. CPSC also has publications with information on how to repair and remove asbestos as well as general information on asbestos in the home.
3. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). MSHA is part of the Department of Labor that addresses asbestos issues related to mining activities such as enforcing regulation related to mine safety.
4. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH is a federal agency that is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that is responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for preventing work-related disease and injury. It maintains a listing of asbestos publications which may be of interest to the public but specifically covers the topic as it related to occupational safety and health issues.
5. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST develops and promotes measurements, standards, and technology to improve productivity, trade, quality of life. It maintains a listing of accredited asbestos laboratories under the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP).
6. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA is the main federal agency responsible for the enforcement of safety and health legislation and regulations in most workplaces (e,g., construction, manufacturing, service, and marine shipping and navigation). It is part of the Department of Labor. OSHA and EPA asbestos rules and standards are intertwined. OSHA rules and standards about worker exposure to asbestos apply to the construction industry, shipyard industry, and general industry. OSHA standards are designed to reduce exposure risk to workers by requiring employers to monitor exposure and to provide hazard awareness training in any setting where there is potential risk of asbestos exposure.
When asbestos exposure levels in the air exceed legal limits, employers need to further protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices, implementing engineering controls to reduce the levels in the air, providing medical monitoring of workers, and providing protective equipment. As an example of the latter, workers should use National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respirators that fit properly when required. There are also standards in place at work sites to limit the risk of bringing asbestos fibers home from the workplace, so that others do not become ill. Examples would include a requirement to shower before leaving work, change clothes before leaving work, storing street clothes in a separate area at work, and wash work clothes at home separate from home clothes.
If concerned about asbestos exposure at work, workers should discuss this with their employers, other employees, and the company’s health and safety representative (if the company has one). Regional OSHA offices can be found here, contacted for more information, and can make an inspection.
Here is a link to one of OSHA's Asbestos Fact Sheets and another OSHA asbestos web page.
7. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). USGS monitors the importing and consumption of asbestos and maps the location of naturally occurring asbestos.
WHAT FEDERAL PROGRAMS ARE AVAILABLE TO HELP PEOPLE WITH ASBESTOS-RELATED DISEASES?
The answer to this question partly depends on where the person developed the asbestos-related injury. For example, if the injury occurred during military service, the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center can provide medical benefits. Veterans may also be eligible for medical care related to certain non-service connected medical conditions.
There is also the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Company, which provides benefits to longshoremen, harbor workers, other workers in shipping and navigation by water, and other classes of private industry who are injured or suffer disease related to employment.
Lastly, some patients with asbestos-related injuries can also apply for Medicaid insurance coverage.
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD, ASBESTOS?
Asbestos is a Greek word that means “unquenchable” due to mistaken belief that when it is heated that its warmth could not be quenched (put out). The word was named by the ancient Greeks.