Asbestos, a natural mineral fiber found in rock and soil, has been widely used but is far from harmless. Historically, asbestos has been used in the manufacturing of various household products and building materials because of its strength and heat/fire resistant properties. Products include:
- Roofing and siding shingles
- Various wall paints
- Crayons with talc
- Vermiculite-containing garden products
- Wood-burning stove protection materials
- Heat-resistant fabrics
- Vehicle parts, like brake shoes and clutch pads
- Hot water and steam pipes
If products made with asbestos are in some way disturbed, the fibers can be released into the air and then inhaled. When breathed in, these fibers can become lodged in the lungs and other nearby organs where they remain undetected for a long time.
A classified known human carcinogen, asbestos exposure increases the risk of lung cancer and asbestosis, and is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure has also been linked to gastrointestinal, colorectal, throat, kidney, esophagus, and gallbladder cancers.
A Brief History
While it has been used heavily in the U.S. since the late 1800s, risks associated with the material were recognized as early as 1918, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report that highlighted an “abnormally high risk of early death among asbestos workers.” Since then, its danger to health has been heavily researched and documented, linking asbestos with various forms of cancer, including mesothelioma. By 1955, a major epidemiological study determined that asbestos workers are 10 times more likely than the general population to contract lung cancer.
While the medical literature continued to increase its case against asbestos with over 200 publications describing the dangers of the material by the end of the 1960s, the asbestos industry continued to manufacture and sell asbestos-containing goods without warnings.
In 1970, Congress passed what’s known as the Clean Air Act, which allows the EPA to regulate asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant. Through 1974, regulations continued to increase and restrain the permitted use of and exposure to the substance.
A Disturbing Decision
In 1989, the EPA banned the use of asbestos in the manufacturing of new products, only to have it overturned two years later by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The substance can still be found in a number of products manufactured today.
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