The risk of asbestos exposure today – and the serious health hazard it presents – comes not only in the form of legacy asbestos, but its continued use.
While the unbridled, ubiquitous use of asbestos of decades ago has slowed under restrictions, asbestos has not been completely banned in the U.S. In fact, asbestos imports increased significantly in the U.S. last year.
Asbestos Awareness Week, April 1-7, provides an important reminder that asbestos can cause mesothelioma, lung, ovarian and laryngeal cancers decades after exposure. Noncancerous asbestos-related conditions include asbestosis, pleural thickening, pleural plaques and pleural effusion.
Today’s exposure to this naturally occurring mineral can come from some obvious, and some not-so-obvious, places.
Using Toys, Makeup and Beauty Products with Talc
The largest, nonoccupational, nonlegacy potential exposure to asbestos involves naturally occurring talc.
Talc, the softest mineral on Earth, is used extensively in personal care products, cosmetics and even in children’s toys. Unfortunately, the mining of talc is often in close proximity to asbestos deposits, which can lead to cross-contamination.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration are currently reviewing possible new regulations on the use of talc. Courts have been hearing a number of significant cases involving talc and asbestos-related diseases, particularly ovarian cancer.
Asbestos was found in nine of 52 cosmetic talc products the FDA tested in 2019, leading Johnson & Johnson to stop the sale of its iconic talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada.
Independent tests commissioned by an American nonprofit group found several imported children’s toys contained traces of asbestos fibers linked to talc. Among the toys were crayons, in which the talc served as a binding agent.
Home or Commercial Renovation Projects
Any residential or commercial construction done before the early 1980s likely involved asbestos, which was utilized for its heat resistance, versatility and ability to strengthen other materials.
Home DIY enthusiasts today may not know they could come into contact with asbestos products that become more dangerous with age. As they deteriorate or are sanded, drilled, cut or disturbed in any way, the microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne.
Inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers can result in those fibers becoming trapped in the lungs or embedded into the digestive tract, leading to serious health problems.
Asbestos can be found in floor tiles, drywall, cement, roofs, paint and insulation, along with myriad other construction products, both residential and commercial.
Anyone involved in a renovation project – big or small – or doing regular maintenance in an older structure, such as a school or church, could be at risk. So could those doing everyday cleanup within those structures.
Firefighters, even with protective gear, are especially at risk from legacy asbestos when they encounter burning structures and the accompanying smoke and debris.
Repairing Cars and Using Older Equipment
Professional and home DIY mechanics are at risk from the continued use of asbestos. High-end imported cars still use asbestos brake linings, and aftermarket asbestos auto parts, including brakes and gaskets, can still be purchased. Repairs to older vehicles may also put mechanics at risk.
Brake and clutch repair often put anyone venturing into an enclosed automobile repair shop, or even a home garage, at risk. Brake cleaning techniques still being used can release asbestos into the air, making everyone in the vicinity vulnerable.
In addition to consumer vehicles, industrial machines, tractors and other farm equipment can contain asbestos. Asbestos was also considered an ideal material for use in the shipbuilding industry for its resistance to corrosion and high temperatures. It often was used from bow to stern to make ships safer.
Asbestos was also used in science and technology equipment. On college campuses across the country, asbestos laboratory equipment such as fume hoods are still in active use. Sheet gaskets in chemical plants are also still being used today.
Using Asbestos to Make Chlorine
An estimated 300 metric tons of raw asbestos was imported into the country in 2020. All of it went to the chloralkali industry.
This industry has been the only domestic consumer of raw asbestos since 2016. It includes 11 chloralkali facilities across the country.
The EPA has reported that there are currently serious health threats to workers exposed to raw asbestos. The industry has expressed support for tightening current asbestos restrictions, provided it is an exception to any legislation.
Asbestos is used in the manufacturing of a variety of chemicals, including chlorine used in swimming pools, cleaning products and tap water.
Encountering Asbestos in the Environment
In certain parts of the U.S. there is a definitive environmental risk from both manmade causes and naturally occurring asbestos deposits.
Genetic testing of individuals is being done today in northern Nevada to gauge potential susceptibility to asbestos diseases because of the natural higher-than-normal exposure to asbestos there.
The U.S. Geological Survey has released maps showing states such as California, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Washington containing larger-than-normal asbestos deposits.
Through ongoing natural erosion, dry conditions, high winds, road construction or commercial development, these deposits can become more exposed.
Hundreds of sledders in Denver may have recently encountered asbestos, according to officials from the city’s parks and recreation department. The exposure occurred on an off-limits hill after a snowfall. This deposit is reportedly the result of the landfill upon which the park was created.
Natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes also play a role. A series of tornados that crossed Alabama and Georgia last month destroyed entire neighborhoods, tearing apart dozens of older homes.
The cleanup of the debris could involve exposure and potential long-term health problems.
Asbestos superfund sites include former mines, like in Libby, Montana, chemical plants and some military bases. Brands like GE, GM, Ford and Dow have been involved in asbestos-contaminated sites.
U.S. Senate Proclaims Asbestos Awareness Week
The EPA confirmed the continued, ongoing threat throughout the U.S., issuing Part 1 of its Final Risk Evaluation for Asbestos in January.
It found 16 conditions of asbestos use that presented unreasonable risk to human health, even without exploring legacy asbestos, which will be included in Part 2 later this year.
In the meantime, the U.S. Senate officially designated the first week of April as National Asbestos Awareness Week, urging the U.S. Surgeon General to help teach Americans about the risk of asbestos exposure.
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