Once considered safe enough to use in toothpaste, the history surrounding asbestos is riddled with strange fascination as well as fear and loathing. For centuries, the naturally-occurring fiber was praised for its fire-resistant qualities. Today, however, the word “asbestos” evokes widespread concern amid documented health risks, government warnings, and national bans. Still, the story of asbestos appears to be far from over. Activity involving the fiber is still very much alive around the world — including right here in the U.S.
Widespread Health Concerns over Asbestos Exposure
Just before the turn of the 21st century, the United Kingdom took a hardline against asbestos. Following a series of laws that prohibited partial use of asbestos, in 1999 the UK government decided to ban the use and import of asbestos – with absolutely no exceptions. In the U.S., where an asbestos ban had just been overturned 8 years prior, the focus shifted to abatement and strict, regulated use. But, as congressional lawmakers battled with the EPA over a plan to reduce workplace asbestos risk, the mineral continued to decimate men and women who devoted their careers — particularly during World War II — to working in factories, mines, mills, and shipyards. Many of these workers had been breathing in for years massive amounts of asbestos and, as a result, these men and women were dying of diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
On September 11, 2001 — as the world watched the terror attacks unfold on U.S. soil and saw the World Trade Center towers in New York City topple to the ground, “pulverized asbestos” particles filled the air along with smoke and debris. An estimated 400 tons of asbestos was used in the construction of the World Trade Center — most of which came showering down on the survivors and first-responders at the scene. The World Trade Center Health Registry estimates more than 400,000 people were exposed to asbestos during the rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts that followed 9/11. Two workers have since died of mesothelioma after inhaling toxic debris at Ground Zero. Due to mesothelioma’s long latency period, experts expect a large number of 9/11 responders to be diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma, within the next 20-to-50 years.
Asbestos-Related Litigation and Legislation in the U.S.
By 2002, more than 730,000 people had filed asbestos claims in the U.S. as more corporate knowledge of asbestos’s carcinogenic properties came to light. The next year, an Illinois jury handed down a $250 Million verdict against United States Steel Corp. — the largest award to date — for asbestos liability. The lawsuit was filed by Roby Whittington, a long-time U.S. Steel worker who was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Whittington claimed the disease was caused by exposure to asbestos while working at the steel plant, and contended that the company had not adequately protected workers from asbestos. On March 28, 2003, a state court jury awarded the plaintiff $50 Million in compensatory damages, and $200 Million in punitive damages.
With a strict U.S. workplace standard for asbestos in place — 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air as mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — there has been a steep decline in domestic usage. Still, proponents of an asbestos ban in the U.S. say the decline will do little for those people who have already been exposed and for those who continue to be. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 18,068 Americans died of mesothelioma from 1999 through 2005, with the annual toll around 3,200 deaths from this terrible disease. According to the CDC, another 1,500 will die each year of asbestosis.
Dr. Richard Lemen, a former assistant U.S. surgeon general told a Senate committee in 2007 that, “Another 270,000-to-330,000 deaths are expected to occur over the next 30 years.” If Lemen’s calculations are correct, America’s death toll from asbestos exposure could top a sobering half-million people.
The U.S. government has been criticized in recent years for its limited action against asbestos. The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2006 (the “FAIR Act”) was to be one of Congress’ most comprehensive efforts to ensure claimants are compensated for sickness, loss of life, and loss of wages. But it never became law. In 2007, U.S. senator Patty Murray (D-WA) sponsored the Ban Asbestos in America Act – but this too, died in Congress.
Once hailed as an “exemplar of modern industrial production” and a “magic mineral” of ancient times, asbestos is now mainly used in developing countries. Russia is a leading producer of asbestos worldwide, while China is the world’s largest consumer. The mineral is banned or restricted in as many as 55 countries, yet asbestos products can still be sold in the U.S. Aircraft brakes and gaskets, as well as imported asbestos brakes for older automobiles are still being sold for older automobiles, putting professional mechanics and weekend hobbyists at risk. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in occupational settings each year.