Asbestos is a deadly material that the United States continues to allow despite safe alternatives being widely available. This exposes Americans to a completely unnecessary health risk. There are many laws and regulations surrounding asbestos that have been designed to limit potential health risks, but they are not strong enough protections. Political language surrounding asbestos implies that it has been “banned,” but the reality is that many exceptions exist and are still used today despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing no level of exposure is safe.

Unfortunately evidence and facts are not enough to change the systems that currently allow asbestos production and use.

The asbestos industry has significant social and political power that allows them to sway the opinions and perspectives of people affected by exposure and, more importantly, the political systems that codify the rules and regulations that determine what is allowed. They are able to influence the political process by being involved heavily in the language that is codified into law so loopholes and exceptions can be introduced and easily exploited. Then they influence the opinion of the public by funding pseudo-scientific studies designed to cause doubt and confusion.

It gets even more complicated when the asbestos industry contributes to our local economy by providing jobs, wages, and benefits to working class Americans. When the economy of a community relies heavily on any one industry that community tends to highlight the positive and downplay the negative, especially when they are exposed to incomplete or misleading propaganda.

Even with the power of industry lobbying some countries have successfully outlawed the use or production of asbestos, including South Korea and Canada. The United States can be moved to a total ban by following in their footsteps and utilizing the social and political tactics that lead to changing the laws and regulations surrounding asbestos:

  • Unions and civil groups must stay heavily involved with proposing and crafting new legislation.
  • The population must receive a significant education surrounding the health risks of even indirect exposure.
  • Victims and activist groups must rally together and combine their collective resources.
  • The health of our population must be prioritized over private profits.

We’ve Known Asbestos Was Dangerous as Early as 1898.

Asbestos can withstand heat and other chemical erosion, and though it’s fibers are thin and soft they have a very high tensile strength. These properties are the reason asbestos was marketed as a miracle mineral and utilized in thousands of products including shipyards, homes, schools, playgrounds, and even as protective heat-resistant suits for firefighters.

The affects of asbestos exposure on the human lung.

Asbestos must be mined, milled, manufactured, fabricated, transported, tested, and abated by workers who rely on the industry to provide for their families. This exposes not only the workers to dangerous asbestos fibers, but also their families who are exposed to their clothing, and every American who uses the products that are made with “acceptable” exposure levels.

Factory workers in the 1900’s who were processing and working with asbestos often worked in very dusty environments. They breathed in fibers while at work then brought those dust fibers back home in their hair and on their clothes. There was already a significant amount of evidence showing that asbestos was dangerous.

In 1898 factory inspectors in England warned that asbestos dust lead to lung disease. Though many officials read these reports, the concerns were ignored. Then in 1906 fifty female workers died in France officially due to asbestos dust exposure. By 1918 insurance companies would not offer life support to American and Canadian asbestos workers because death and lung disease rates were too common.

The industry ignored and even suppressed this information and continued with business as usual.

It wasn’t until the death of factory worker Nellie Kershaw in 1924 that asbestos began to receive widespread coverage. Her death was the first official American inquiry and was widely covered by local newspapers reporting that the sharp asbestos fibers had caused thousands of perforations in her lungs until eventually she suffocated to death.

Turner Brothers, the factory that had employed Nelly, refused to accept responsibility or provide compensation for her death. They needed to avoid setting a precedent for compensation claims related to asbestos exposure to avoid cases from previous, current, and future employees. Though Nelly’s family did not get justice, her death was the catalyst that shined media spotlight on the dangers of asbestos exposure.

A few years later in 1930, the British government examined over 300 asbestos workers and found that a 25% of the labor force was suffering from asbestosis. These staggering numbers lead to a need for legislation that required the factory owners to protect their workers and offer medical compensation. However, the industry had a significant influence on the verbiage of the law and limited the law to only the most exposed workers in the factories. Construction workers who used asbestos-containing materials and individuals who purchased asbestos-containing products were not covered at all by the initial regulations.

In America Johns Manville conducted research privately regarding asbestos-related cancer and found that a staggering 80% of rats exposed to asbestos developed lung cancer. However, his research was not published. After his death in 1946 his study was re-written at the demand of the asbestos industry who had funded the study. His successor complied and removed all references to cancer and tumors.

But this suppression of information could not last forever. In 1955 British scientists published a report that showed that asbestos workers had higher rates of cancer by ten times. Around this same time lung cancer was well-linked to tobacco use, so no new regulations or protections were introduced until a South African doctor found a specific form of cancer directly caused by even trivial exposure to asbestos: mesothelioma.

Asbestos was the most widely used construction material of the times. Housewives, school teachers, and others who had never worked in the asbestos industry before were exposed to asbestos at some point and could be at risk for mesothelioma. This was shocking to the American public.

By the 1960s major asbestos distributors began to add warning labels with language that stated that asbestos exposure may cause health issues to try to mitigate their liability for failing to warn the public of the danger of asbestos. Publicly the industry continued to insist asbestos was safe, and began publishing reports and articles in popular newspapers trivializing the health risks and praising the benefits.

It was too late. The dangers of asbestos exposure could no longer be ignored. It wasn’t until the late 60s and early 70s that environmental groups began to get involved and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) began to create regulations surrounding asbestos. Asbestos was banned as an insulation product and more legislation was introduced.

The EPA has written six laws, supported by title 40 §763 of the code of federal regulations . These laws include rules about asbestos in schools (AHERA), the responsibilities of the EPA regarding air quality (CAA), and regulates water safety management (SDWA) for all 50 states. Although there are a lot of regulations, many products are still allowed including cement, pipeline wrapping, roofing materials, and clothing.

Chrysotile asbestos is exempted from the ban because it has a “controlled use”. But supporting literature shows that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are human carcinogens that have been proven to cause malignant mesothelioma, laryngeal cancers, and lung cancers. There is also evidence that asbestos may cause ovarian and gastrointestinal cancers. Ladou and colleagues found that “there is no evidence of a threshold level [to asbestos exposure] below which there is no risk of mesothelioma.” There is no medical or scientific basis to continue to allow asbestos exemptions or to use asbestos products in manufacturing when there are alternative options available. There is no reason to unnecessarily expose private citizens to such a powerful carcinogen. The continued use of asbestos is an unnecessary health risk and should be considered a public health emergency.

The Asbestos Lobbying Industry Influences Hospitals, Lawmakers, and Even Scientific Studies.

Despite these clear dangers, asbestos is still used thanks to the lobbying power and influence of asbestos mining and manufacturing industries. Government agencies are not concerned with additional research when there is consensus on the health outcomes of a product, so fewer papers citing the dangers of asbestos are released. But industry lobbyists still have a financial interest in research to raise doubt about the dangers of asbestos, and the studies that come out showing doubts are often funded by industries with a financial interest in continued use of asbestos.

When the industry is paying for studies, they can choose to suppress or omit information that does not fit their narrative, as we saw when the Johns Mannfield company removed all of the references to cancer and tumors. The imbalance of recent literature that are pro-asbestos (or at least are specifically not anti-asbestos) creates an illusion that there is not significant scientific consensus, or that pro-asbestos is now somehow a more widely-accepted viewpoint within the scientific community (hint: it’s not).

Russia is currently the leading producer of asbestos and has very little regulations or restrictions. In Asbest, Russia the giant asbestos mine in the middle of town is the source of over 70% of the town’s income. Asbestos is such an important staple that the town is even named after it. Signs, fliers, and posters in the town all seem to glorify and praise asbestos despite well-established scientific evidence of cancer and other health risks. There is even a monument made out of asbestos displayed proudly.

The asbestos mining quarry in Asbest, Russia.

The mining company provides social welfare programs like healthcare and educational programs to the local community. Banning asbestos would be an economic disaster for the city, so it is no wonder that the residents are reluctant to speak ill of asbestos. The residents of Asbest downplayed the dangers of asbestos when they were asked. They simultaneously believe contradictory information: if they aren’t afraid of asbestos and wash their hands they will have no problems, and that all industries have health hazards and it is just something to adapt to.

When Larsson asked doctors in Asbest whether exposure to the giant asbestos mining pit was dangerous, they were evasive and stated that “life is dangerous” and refused to directly answer the question. The healthcare providers in the area lump mesothelioma in with all other cancers instead of recording it separately, further obfuscating evidence that asbestos is unacceptably dangerous.

A similar town exists in America. In Libby, Montana companies first started pulling vermiculite out of mines in 1919.  A century later nearly 3,000 residents are still suffering illnesses related to the slow-onset of asbestos exposure and at least 400 have died, though many experts believe the cause of death were not accurately reported due to industry control of local hospitals. In 1963 W.R Grace & Company (“Grace”) took control of the mine but failed to warn the community that it was contaminated with asbestos, so production and dangerous exposure continued until 1990 when the mine was finally closed. Lawsuits were filed against Grace that are still being paid out today, decades after the first suit was filed.

Remediation efforts have been long-lasting. The EPA first added Libby to their Superfund list in 2002, a designation that requires the EPA to clean up the site and the responsible parties (aka Grace) to participate in and fund the cleanup efforts. Six years later Grace was ordered to provide $250 million in clean-up costs and the EPA declared the town of Libby to be a public health emergency. Clean up continued until 2018, twelve years after cleanup efforts first started.However it is too little too late: mesothelioma and other lung diseases can still manifest 30 to 40 years after exposure.

Though the clean up efforts have concluded, the death rates and number of sick residents continues to rise. The United States had previously been on track to completely ban asbestos until the summer of 2018, just after the cleanup of Libby was successfully concluded, the EPA issued a “significant new use restriction” that allowed for looser restrictions and additional uses of asbestos upon approval by the agency. Many of the Libby victims were not happy with the decision to expand the use of asbestos immediately after their tragedy.

Despite this setback, Libby may still be able to work as a catalyst towards a total asbestos ban in the same way the death of the factory worker Nellie Kershaw spurred education of the health dangers of asbestos and changed public opinion.

Other Countries Have Banned Asbestos and the United States can, Too.

Korea was able to ban asbestos in 2009 after it had been used for 70 years. Many different social, political, and economic contexts needed to be addressed and provided with alternatives before the ban could succeed. This was done in a series of five distinct phases, and each phase was necessary for the next to occur.

  • Phase 1: Laissez-Faire
  • Phase 2: Political-Technical
  • Phase 3: Economic-Managerial
  • Phase 4: Health-Oriented
  • Phase 5: Human Rights-Based Post-Cultural Risk

The United States is currently teetering between phase 4 and 5.

Even safety equipment is not enough to protect workers from asbestos exposure.

Yoon Yu-Ryong calls the first phase laissez-faire, when there was no legislation surrounding asbestos. Korea had a unique situation in that the first asbestos mines were opened under foreign control by the Japanese, and there were no major Korean asbestos lobbyists. In 1981 they enacted the Industrial Safety and Health Law. This marked the end of the laissez-faire phase and the began the political-technical phase.

During this time many industry professionals played a major role, but unions and civil groups were ignored or discluded completely from asbestos regulation. Still, many (but not all) asbestos products were banned and aggressive exposure limits were set.

The economic-managerial phase took place during the early 90s, when globalization was expanding. Asbestos was used less and less by Korea due to strict international import rules (that were later overturned). The automotive industry of Korea had to start using asbestos-free brake linings to export cars, the shipbuilding industry had to stop using asbestos in new ships, and alternatives were slowly integrated. There was still exposure to asbestos however, and the Korean government responded with increased hazard pay to incentivize workers and make up for the health risks.

The staggering number of cases of asbestosis and other asbestos-related health diagnoses began the health-oriented phase in 1995. The perception of the health risks were significantly increased due to the concrete medical evidence. Victims and outreach activist groups began to rally together against the asbestos industry. Their collective efforts lead to the formation of the Ban Asbestos Network Korea (“BANKO”) in 2008.

BANKO focused on environmental concerns like asbestos in playgrounds and baby powders, which lead to radical social change that allowed for stricter policies in 2009. This successful legislation marked the transition to the final human-rights phase that addressed deficiencies in regulations like the Pneumoconiosis Act, which had previously protected workers but not environmental victims. The focus shifted to human rights and the workers right to know, fully understand the risks, and the role the government must play in protecting its citizens. These phase changes were all necessary in order to enact the Asbestos Safety Management Act in 2012 and ban asbestos completely.

Canada also banned asbestos, despite a more significant industry lobbying presence. Although the negative health effects of asbestos had become widely known and well supported in the developed world by the 1980s, the Canadian asbestos industry still did not give up trying to expand their operations. Historically the Canadian asbestos industry had political support at provincial and national levels. Quebec was the major province that was mining and processing asbestos materials in Canada. Instead of continuing to market to western countries who had become aware of the dangers of asbestos, the industry began to target developing countries. They changed their name to the Chrysotile Institute to avoid the negative connotation that asbestos now carries.

Typically victim organizations would be key players in mobilizing to ban asbestos, but in Canada no such organizations existed. Trade unions are normally also key players in banning and restricting asbestos, but in Canada they supported the asbestos industry. There was a culture of silence and intimidation in the community. Asbestos mines were locally owned, many families relied on asbestos for work, misleading scientific studies were released without disclosing who was funding the studies, and the asbestos industry had significant political and economic power.

These overwhelming odds are not too unlike what is seen in Asbest, Russia or the United States where asbestos is still not fully prohibited. Through advocacy groups, international pressure, a transparent media campaign challenging the safety of asbestos, and by holding key players in the government accountable the government of Canada voted to ban asbestos by 2018 despite the significant lobbying power of the industry. It was a victory for public health.

If the United States follows the models in Korea and Canada, we too can ban asbestos outright. The health risks are widely known and understood, but the power of industry lobbyists has loosened regulations. The ongoing tragedy of the asbestos pandemic in Libby, Montana can help serve as a catalyst for a complete and total ban of asbestos in the United States once and for all.

We must stand up to special interests and take control of our environment and our health. If we come together through dedicated campaigns at the local, State, and Federal levels, we can hold key officials accountable for the current public health crisis and bring about long overdue change. Our lives depend on it.

If you suspect asbestos may be present in your home or office contact ETTNW for an asbestos test.