Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data concerning the ongoing effects of asbestos exposure. The results of its investigation were far from expected. Despite a decrease in asbestos use and vast efforts to educate the public about its dangers over recent years, asbestos-related deaths still haven’t begun to decline.
“The continuing occurrence of mesothelioma deaths among persons aged <55 years suggests ongoing occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos fibers and other causative EMPs [elongate mineral particles],” study authors wrote, “despite regulatory actions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at limiting asbestos exposure.”
It’s disturbing to think that asbestos – a mineral that kills over 2,500 Americans per year – could still be so prevalent in the U.S. today. The proof, according to the CDC, is that deaths are occurring even among people born after asbestos became highly regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
We know that the EPA has so far only partially banned asbestos-related uses and products under the Clean Air Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act. So where else is asbestos lingering – and, more importantly, why?
Asbestos Not Dealt with as It Should Be
In response to the CDC’s study, the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (a nonprofit dedicated to mesothelioma prevention) released a statement remarking that these findings were not news.
“This report is not surprising to us,” said Melinda Kotzian, Chief Executive Officer of the foundation. “For several years now, we have been seeing more young people than ever before.”
The CDC’s report speculated that the reasons for exposure were primarily occupational, and that workers at high risk of exposure in certain industries aren’t given adequate protection. But the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation suggests that the public is at risk regardless of occupation. In fact, people are just as likely to be exposed in their own homes.
Where Can Asbestos Be Found Today?
Asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral, was once used in public and commercial building construction and product manufacture. Its properties seemed at the time to be perfect for the job: low cost, durability, and strong heat, fire, and friction resistance among the most coveted.
Asbestos cleanup and removal projects are in full force all over the country now that its health risks are known, but asbestos abatement still makes for slow progress in reversing the damage of decades of heavy use. Worse, more than a dozen products are still manufactured with asbestos. The substance can be found in:
- Automobile parts, such as brake pads, clutches, and gaskets
- Construction materials, including floor and roofing tiles, cement, and corrugated sheeting
- Other materials used to make consumer products, including plastics, paints, and adhesives
Because the hazards of asbestos were covered up for so many years, many people remain unaware of them. Most have no idea that they live within inches of asbestos every day. They certainly have no reason to believe they are at imminent risk of disease.
The Bottom Line: Still a Deadly Public Health Concern
Today, asbestos is linked to a number of deadly health effects – most of them aggressive. Inhaling or ingesting its microscopic fibers can lead life altering, chronic diseases such as asbestosis (a lung disease) or mesothelioma (a lethal, incurable cancer with a very low life expectancy, with which around 3,200 people are diagnosed every year).
This leaves 1 question on public health advocates’ minds. Considering federal agencies’ measures to “protect” the public and regulate asbestos use, how can it be that we are still exposed to the deadly mineral, and how are deaths still so common?
The answer is simple: regulatory action just hasn’t been good enough, and corrupt business agendas that promote aggressive lobbying tactics have had too much of a say.
OSHA, for example, has reduced limits on the quantity of asbestos workers can be exposed to. But the reality is that there is no safe level of exposure; asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma can develop from as little as 1 fiber. Similarly, the EPA’s failure to ban every instance of asbestos use has allowed asbestos imports to continue as usual. As recently as 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey found more than 350 metric tons of asbestos in use.
The rate of resulting deaths is definitely concerning – and so is the serious lack of intervention. While the public is still at risk of exposure, therefore, it’s important to draw as much attention as possible to the problem.
More importantly, we must prepare for an uncertain future “for people who have already been exposed to asbestos, for everyone sick today, and for everyone who will become sick in the future,” says Dr. Tobias Peikert, a researcher of the Mayo Clinic.
“We owe them effective treatments, and not just hope that asbestos will somehow disappear.”