The first week of April is devoted to Global Asbestos Awareness Week, an initiative meant to educate people about the dangers of asbestos and the diseases related to its exposure. Launched by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, the now worldwide event is in its 13th year and shines a light on the thousands of people diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases annually, while advocating for the ban of the substance in the United States.
Current federal regulations limit the amount of asbestos in newly-manufactured products to less than one percent, but the threat of exposure is still very real. Older homes may still contain asbestos used in various applications from tar paper and ceiling tiles to caulking. Public buildings, including schools and business offices, may also contain the material, which was used as an insulation because of its high resistance to heat and durability.
Roughly 60 countries worldwide, including the entire European Union, have asbestos bans in place. Late last year, Canada joined the ever-growing group, vowing to ban it by 2018. Although the material is considered safe when left alone, if disturbed asbestos particles can become airborne and enter the body through inhalation. Once inside, those fibers settle in the lungs, causing irritation and inflammation in the organ lining and eventually allowing tumors to develop. In other cases, the fibers may travel through the lymph nodes to other sections of the body, including the linings of the heart or abdomen. Several diseases are associated with asbestos exposure, including asbestosis and mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that isn’t often diagnosed until its later stages. Because of the late diagnosis, most patients are given a prognosis of only 12-21 months.
Although anyone can be exposed to asbestos, there are several lines of work where exposure is more common due to where and how it was used. For example, a carpenter may become exposed to asbestos after disturbing some pipe insulation while remodeling someone’s basement. Military service members may have also been exposed while serving on Naval ships or maintaining aircraft. Even automotive workers face possible exposure through brake pad dust and clutch linings.
Late last year, the Environmental Protection Agency included asbestos on its list of ten chemicals slated for evaluation and potential banning under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. Though a political sea of change has left the EPA in a tenuous position, there is still hope asbestos will be banned in the near future if the EPA is able to move forward and act on its findings.
The kicker to all of this is mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related diseases are completely preventable, especially when employees and homeowners take the necessary precautions to limit exposure and properly abate it when it’s found. Dozens of countries have already stepped up and removed the mineral from manufacturing and use, and the United States would be doing the right thing by following suit.