Photo by Earl Dotter.

Hear much about asbestos lately? Think it’s one of those hazards from the past? Think again.

An estimated 50,000 workers die every year from illness acquired in the workplace, and asbestos exposure from decades ago are a major contributor to that toll.  As we are assaulted on a daily basis from the White House and OMB about how government services are a waste of money, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reminds us that people are still dying of asbestos-related mesothelioma.  In fact more are dying from mesothelioma today than in 1999. And more — not less — government action is needed to combat this persistent threat.

During 1999–2015, a total of 45,221 deaths with malignant mesothelioma mentioned on the death certificate as the underlying or contributing cause of death were reported in the United States, increasing from 2,479 deaths in 1999 to 2,597 in 2015.

According to CDC, malignant mesothelioma can develop after short-term asbestos exposures of only a few weeks, and from very low levels of exposure.”  It can take 20 to 71 years for mesothelioma to develop.

Most current deaths are from exposures many years ago, but more troubling, according to the CDC is that “the continuing occurrence of mesothelioma deaths among persons aged  under 55 years suggests ongoing occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos fibers …despite regulatory actions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at limiting asbestos exposure. ”

In fact more are dying from asbestos-related mesothelioma today than in 1999.  And more, not less, government action is needed to combat this persistent threat.

There is perhaps no cancer causing substance that has received more attention in the United States and around the world than asbestos.  Current exposures to commercial asbestos in the United States occur predominantly during maintenance operations and remediation of older buildings containing asbestos. Asbestos was used heavily for building insulation before being banned for that use in the mid-1970s.  The occupations with the highest rates of mesothelioma were  insulation workers, chemical technicians, and pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters.

Efforts over the last several decades to ban use of asbestos have not been successful. EPA attempted to ban the use of asbestos in the United States in the 1980s, but the EPA action was overtunred by the courts after fierce industry resistance. EPA eventually banned sprayed-on asbestos and a few other uses. Asbestos is still imported for use in the chemical industry as well as “manufactured products, including brake linings and pads, building materials, gaskets, millboard, and yarn and thread.”

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Reform passed in 2016, EPA has listed asbestos as one of the  ten chemicals it will evaluate for potential risks to human health and the environment.”  The TSCA Reform act also covers worker exposures.  This action, announced during the Obama administration, could lead to renewed efforts to ban asbestos, although the fate of chemical reviews under TSCA may fall victim to industry opposition or the catastrophic EPA budget cuts being proposed by the Trump administration. Trump (along with Fox News) have said nice things about asbestos in the past.

OSHA, which regulates workplace exposures,  has lowered exposure levels several times over the past several decade, as has EPA which regulates exposures to non-workers and the environment in renovations and demolitions.   While exposure to asbestos has fallen in workplaces, one-fifth of air samples collected in the construction industry in 2003 exceeded the OSHA permissible exposure limit.

The CDC concluded that

Despite regulatory actions and decline in asbestos use, the annual number of malignant mesothelioma deaths remains substantial. Contrary to past projections, the number of malignant mesothelioma deaths has been increasing. The continuing occurrence of mesothelioma deaths, particularly among younger populations, underscores the need for maintaining efforts to prevent exposure and for ongoing surveillance.

“Maintaining” (or increasing) efforts to prevent asbestos exposure is a message that does not bode well these days as the Trump White House tells agencies to prepare for major budget cuts and staff reductions.  The result: a smaller government and more people will die from preventable causes.


What to do if you think you may be exposed to asbestos

EPA has more information on protecting families and communities from asbestos here. And OSHA has information on protecting workers here.

If you’re working on a building renovation, repair or demolition and think there might be asbestos which your employer is not protecting you from, contact OSHA at 800-321-6742 (OSHA).

If a building is being renovated or demolished, especially if it was built before 1980, information about contacting EPA can be found here.

(Kudos to McClatchy and NPR for picking up the story.)

2 thoughts on “Asbestos: Still a Killer”
  1. Jordan: Great use of this photo for your Confined Space Blog on asbestos. Many other new workplace and environmentally related photos. Just ask when you need a particular kind of image that is not readily available to you. The photo credit is appreciated. Forwarding this blog to Linda Reinstein, the Executive Director of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Org. I am glad to see most of your Confined Space Blogs well illustrated with vivid photos. The trenching photo was remarkable, Earl

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