100 Years Later, Asbestos Is Still a Modern-Day Threat

100 Years Later, Asbestos Is Still a Modern-Day Threat

A century after doctors first warned that asbestos was harming employees, the malignant mineral poses ongoing risks.

From personal protective equipment to improved training, workplace safety has made significant advancements. But asbestos is one of the most durable substances known to humans, able to withstand temperatures far in excess of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, sustain enormous pressure, and resist rusting and chemical breakdown. 

A lot of asbestos is still out there, and some of it is still in the bodies of workers who breathed and swallowed it in the twentieth century. 

The First Alarm Bells

While some spurious claims are made online that ancient Romans like Pliny the Elder knew about the dangers of asbestos, in fact the health risks of asbestos were first brought to light in 1924, when an article in the British Medical Journal warned about the dangers in its dust.

Before that, doctors working near asbestos worksites had suspected the dust was causing chronic bronchitis and fibrosis (scarring) in their patients. Professor J.M. Beattie's research validated these suspicions by demonstrating that asbestos particles caused fibrosis in guinea pigs.

This early recognition was an important milestone, but concerns raised by medical professionals were often met with strong resistance from the asbestos industry at the time. These companies sought to avoid employee lawsuits by hiring scientists to downplay the dangers of asbestos, including outright burying their own studies that showed asbestos caused cancer.

Asbestos Regulation and Worker Protection

Significant steps have been taken to protect workers and the public. One milestone was the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971, with asbestos being one of the first substances that OSHA regulated.

In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to enforce strict mandates against many uses of asbestos and ban their manufacturing, importing or sale. 

Most recently, the EPA announced a ban on some of the lingering permitted uses of asbestos, specifically its most commonly used type, chrysotile.

The Persistent Occupational Hazard of Asbestos

While significant progress has been made in regulating the use of asbestos, the reality is that this deadly substance remains an ongoing occupational hazard. While it’s no longer an industry staple, remnants of an asbestos-laden past can still be found in our built environment.

In fact, recent research has shed a troubling light on the extent of ongoing exposure in the U.S. According to a survey conducted by Researchscape, an alarming 38 percent of Americans have been directly exposed to asbestos in high-risk industries. Furthermore, an even larger percentage (47 percent) have experienced indirect exposure through family members.

And yet, there continue to be challenges in addressing the ongoing dangers of asbestos.

Despite regulations, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are found in many older buildings, posing a persistent threat during renovation and demolition. 

Degradation, renovation or demolition can inadvertently disturb ACMs in older structures and send asbestos fibers airborne, potentially exposing anyone in the vicinity. Proper inspection, testing, and abatement are essential to mitigate these risks but can involve significant costs.

Latent Impacts of Asbestos Exposure

The insidious nature of asbestos-related diseases also continues to haunt us. Asbestos diseases usually take at least 20 years to appear, and a century of research shows it can take as long as 50 years or more. Sadly, the full extent of the problem is still unfolding.

A recent CDC report verified that a large number of mesothelioma cases were linked to secondhand exposure, and many who have developed this disease were housewives who washed their husbands' work clothing or children living in the home. This highlights the far-reaching and often unexpected ways in which exposure can occur, usually with devastating consequences.

Furthermore, even for workers who were screened in the past, asbestos scarring on the lungs may not manifest until after retirement, when many workers feel “out of the woods,” making it hard to connect the dots between employment, exposure and the development of disease.

Asbestos causes far more lung cancer than mesothelioma. In fact, a 2022 article titled “Lung Cancer Screening In Asbestos-Exposed Population” found that asbestos exposure is the most significant cause of occupational lung cancer mortality. Workers and anyone residing in their homes who are currently age 50 or older should be proactively screened for lung scarring.

Ensuring a Safer Future

A multi-pronged approach is essential to addressing this persistent threat:

  1. Comprehensive testing and inspection. Regular inspection of older buildings—especially before renovation or demolition work—is crucial to identifying the presence of asbestos and implementing proper mitigation strategies.
  2. Certified asbestos abatement. Ensuring that asbestos removal and disposal is carried out by licensed professionals and in compliance with strict regulations, is vital to protecting public welfare.
  3. Vigilance against scams and shortcuts. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of sham abatement companies, in which real estate developers and building owners falsify reports to save time and money. Diligence in avoiding shortcuts and fraudulent reporting is necessary. Only those individuals with the necessary training and equipment to remove and dispose of asbestos safely and legally should do so.

By addressing the persistent challenges posed by legacy asbestos and the impact of past exposure, we can continue to make progress toward safeguarding workers, families and communities from the dire consequences of this deadly occupational hazard.

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