Top Asbestos Stories of 2017

Asbestos // December 20, 2017

This year has been a rollercoaster ride for many. From conflicts in politics to major shake-ups in Hollywood, the year has definitely had its ups and downs. The same can be said for all the news surrounding asbestos in 2017. The mineral has made headlines for both good and bad reasons throughout the year.

As the year draws to a close, we wanted to highlight a few of the bigger stories around asbestos.

Top Asbestos Producer Brazil Bans the Toxin

Brazil, the third highest producer of asbestos in the world, announced the decision to ban asbestos in the country in the last week of November. The fight to ban asbestos in Brazil has been ongoing for decades, and had even seen some progress over the summer. In August, ten states went to court and were granted permission to ban the toxin, including in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Reports estimated the ban in just these ten states would protect over 130 million citizens.

The Federal Supreme Court in Brazil had attempted to ban the toxin in the whole nation, but didn’t receive enough votes at the time to take action. In November, the court came back to the issue and with a vote of 7 to 2, agreed to ban asbestos for good. The ban includes mining, processing, distribution and even marketing of the toxin.

This ban in particular is a huge step in the right direction, as the asbestos industry was booming in Brazil. The country produced around hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos each year.  Most notably, Brazil produced 306,500 tons in 2011, which was a 55% increase of production from the prior year. Production had dropped and slowed down a bit since then, but Brazil remained among the top producers and consumers in the world. Their ban helps show that despite facing a potentially negative economic impact from closing mines and asbestos workers losing those jobs, the severe health risks of exposure outweigh any economic gain from the industry.

EPA’s Asbestos Evaluation Continues

In late 2016, advocates were relieved to see the inclusion of asbestos in the first ten chemical investigations conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. As the investigations ramped up this year, the public started to receive more information on their study and the scope of the evaluations.

In June, the EPA released scoping documents for all ten investigations, including some data about the amounts and instances where these chemicals have been and are currently used. With this initial information, the public learned the United States imported around 340 metric tons of asbestos in 2015, mostly from Brazil and some from Russia. All of the imports were used for the chlor-alkali industry, which is the only industry in America that still actively relies on the mineral in their processes. Though chlorine can produced with many safer alternatives, there are still many plants that have not switched over from asbestos diaphragms, citing the amount of time and money such a move could take.

Earlier this year, however, it was also announced that the scale of these investigations would be more limited. In the case of asbestos, the administration said the investigation would only include products still being manufactured or entering the market. According to the United States Geological Survey, this would exclude over 8.9 million tons of asbestos products that have been in use from 1970 to 2016. Since asbestos is more regulated and not as widely used today, these legacy uses of the mineral should be a big focus of the investigation as their danger remains.

Dialing back the review has caused many to speak out about the dangers of such limits. During a commenting period, asbestos professionals, advocates, and many agencies spoke out about how legacy uses should be part of the investigation as they cause the most risk of exposure. At the same time, chemical and asbestos industry officials asked the EPA to ignore their continued use of asbestos, claiming it to be used in a safe manner. It remains unclear how the rest of the investigation will go, but the hopes of a future ban on the toxin seems to be at risk.

Asbestos in the Drinking Water

In the same vein as dangerous past uses of asbestos, communities in America and Puerto Rico faced health risks of asbestos leaching into their drinking water from old pipes and as a result of natural disasters. Residents in two small Texas towns, Divine and Arp, faced problems this year as old asbestos pipes started to contaminate their drinking water. The Safe Drinking Water Act limits the presence of asbestos in drinking water to 7 million fibers per liter (MFL). People who drink water above that limit for an extended period of time face various health issues.

These towns saw fluctuating asbestos contamination, as high as 18 MFL in Divine. Though residents of the town were not told specifically to stop drinking the water, many did and opted to buy bottled water instead. The town is currently looking to replace the old pipes to make the drinking water safe again. The town of Arp also faced high levels of contamination, which largely impacted their schools. The town provided water coolers and clean water, and in the fall construction began to replace the dangerous water pipes.

Wildfires and hurricanes earlier this year have also put communities at risk of exposure or asbestos in their drinking water. Wildfires in Sonoma and Marin counties in California left the community nervous about oncoming rain bringing asbestos and other toxins leftover from destroyed buildings into the local water supply. Toxic ash and debris are always concerns after such events for contamination and potential mesothelioma diagnosis decades later.

Puerto Rico faced similar concerns after hurricanes destroyed many buildings and residences. Officials also highlighted concern of damage to the 18 Superfund sites, areas with dangerous environmental hazards requiring intensive cleanup by the EPA. These sites in addition to older buildings containing hidden toxins caused concern for contaminated drinking water and potentially airborne asbestos fibers. It’s important for residents to be aware of the potential for asbestos in such events and know how to stay safe from exposure.

Hope for the New Year

The dangers of asbestos won’t be going away anytime soon, but some of the news from this year gives us hope. Brazil’s ban, as well as Canada’s promised ban for 2018, are big steps in the right direction. Although the EPA’s investigation of asbestos so far isn’t going as expected, there is still hope that they will be able to expand their research and help lead the nation to a much needed future ban. In the meantime, stay informed on all your asbestos news by following our blog through the new year.

Image Credit: Asbestos Hazard by Jim