If you live in a home built before the 1970s, it likely contains pockets of asbestos used during its construction. Known for its durability and heat resistance, the material was used for decades in everything from pipe insulation and ceiling tiles, to shingles and furnace cement. Asbestos was even used as fake snow during the filming of the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” because of how closely it resembles real snow. While the dangers of asbestos are widely understood today, many people are still unaware of how prevalent the toxin is in their own homes.
Although the days of widespread use of asbestos in construction are behind us, there still remains a significant threat of exposure. Older schools, public buildings and homes are all prime candidates to house asbestos. It can also still be found in automotive applications such as disc brakes, clutch linings and transmission plates. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states, “There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber,” and both OSHA and the EPA have strict guidelines in place to protect workers and citizens from being harmed by the mineral.
Intact asbestos is considered safe, but quickly poses a danger when it is disturbed as it can be inhaled through airborne particles. There are many health risks associated with exposure to these particles, including the development of asbestosis or mesothelioma. When the tiny, rigid asbestos fibers are inhaled they may settle into the lungs. Eventually, some fibers may make their way into the pleura, where they can cause significant damage. The irritation and inflammation caused by the material may eventually cause tumors to develop. In rarer cases, tumors may also develop in the abdomen (enteral exposure) or in the pericardium, if the fibers move through the lymph nodes.
The effects of asbestos can take several decades before they become significant enough to cause symptoms, with a latency period ranging from 10 to 50 years. Those diagnosed with mesothelioma are generally given a poor prognosis, often because the disease isn’t properly diagnosed until a later stage when treatment options are limited. On average, a person with mesothelioma is given a life expectancy of 12 to 21 months, though there are cases where patients have lived far past even the best expectations. Advancements in several FDA approved drugs, including Keytruda and Opdivo, have also shown some promise in these patients, though there is still much research to be done.
In the meantime, while actions have been taken to ensure asbestos is not used in newly manufactured products (federal laws prohibit these products from containing more than one percent asbestos), the dangerous substance has not been completely banned in the United States. An effort was made by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 to ban products containing asbestos, but the agency’s final rule was vacated two years later by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2016, the tide seemed to be changing as Congress came together to pass the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The Lautenberg Act is an amendment to the original Toxic Substances Control Act and gives the EPA additional tools to evaluate public health risks and provide more transparency regarding the use of dangerous substances and chemicals. Based on this, the EPA has an increased ability to prioritize high-risk chemicals and subsequently ban them from use in the United States. Late last year, asbestos was among the first ten chemicals selected for the EPA’s assessment, and could eventually be banned in the United States. However, with a new administration making changes in Washington D.C., including some recently proposed cuts to the EPA, mesothelioma victims and their families have some level of uncertainty.
Asbestos is currently banned in more than 50 countries, including all of the countries in the European Union, and Canada is set to join the growing list by 2018. Based on the amount of evidence there is, it would be prudent for the United States to ban asbestos once and for all, but what lies ahead for the EPA’s assessment of asbestos remains to be seen. The truth of the matter is that asbestos is dangerous and poses a substantial risk to those who come into contact with it. It’s only a matter of time before we can finally say asbestos is truly a thing of the past.