by Kerri Boddy
Senior Environmental Scientist
While asbestos has been regulated since 1971 by OSHA and since 1976 by the EPA under 1) the Toxic Substances Control Act and since 1973 under 2) NESHAPs (National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants), asbestos remains a concern today. Why? I’ll explain, but first let’s define what is asbestos.
Many think asbestos is man-made. However, it is actually a name given to a group of six naturally-occurring minerals that are mined from the Earth. Mining of asbestos first started in Canada in the 1870s with the largest mine opening in 1879. While not part of this discussion, asbestos is still mined in many other countries. I mention Canada because approximately 90-95% of the asbestos used in the United States was imported from Canada. Asbestos mining in the U.S. first started in 1894 in Georgia and at least 60 mines operated in the eastern U.S. in the late 1880s to 1990s. Believe it or not, asbestos was mined in the U.S until 2002 and in Canada until 2011. While many mines operated in the U.S. over the 20th century, the consumption of asbestos in the U.S. for building materials and other uses far outpaced the production. In the 1900s, the U.S. produced 3.3 million metric tons of asbestos, but consumed 31 million metric tons. As such, most asbestos had to be imported from our neighbor to the north. Also of note, asbestos consumption peaked in the U.S. in 1973; although as previously stated, asbestos was already regulated by OSHA and the EPA at that time. However, the use has decreased since that time due to regulations and increasing awareness of the health dangers associated with asbestos. Of note, the U.S. imported 100 metric tons of asbestos in 2019 (most used by the chlor-alkali industry to make chlorine); apparently the smallest amount since 1910. This was significantly lower than the 2018 quantity of 681 metric tons. A move in the right direction one would conclude.
So Why is Asbestos Still a Concern?
Asbestos is not banned outright, it is still legal, and has only been banned in a handful of products. So, while the U.S. and other countries have known that asbestos causes cancer (lung cancer, mesothelioma, and digestive cancers) and lung scarring (asbestosis) since the 1930s or earlier, with the first documented case of “asbestos poisoning” noted in the 1920s, asbestos remains in use. However, its use has significantly decreased since the late 1970s/early 1980s in the U.S. While no longer mined in the U.S. or Canada, asbestos does remain big business for other countries and importing raw asbestos or asbestos products into the U.S. is also not banned.
There are many reasons asbestos is not banned in most materials, many of those reasons are associated with politics and money. Not a surprise I’m sure, but the specifics of these reasons are outside the scope of this discussion, but many relate to the politics and actions of just a few U.S.-based companies. Some other reasons are associated with the lack of a substitute in certain applications, such as the need for asbestos in certain industrial settings, including gaskets, oil field brake blocks, automotive brake pads and other vehicle friction products, high pressure applications, chemical applications, etc.
So Where Does Asbestos Exist in the Average Person’s Life?
Asbestos became heavily regulated in K-12 schools in the late 1980s. Many schools have since removed most asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), or removed the most dangerous materials, with the remaining materials managed in place. However, the removal or other actions on ACMs in public and commercial buildings (including residential buildings with more than four units) is not required unless a building is being renovated or demolished. This means that public and commercial buildings can manage asbestos in place. Removal is not required and in most cases, building owners only address ACMs in the event of renovation, demolition, or a property transfer that brings to light the existence of ACMs that were never addressed previously. This means that all buildings (public, commercial, residential, and others) can contain asbestos, and in most cases do, especially if those structures were constructed decades ago. It’s important to note that newer buildings are much less likely to contain ACMs (or significant quantities of ACMs); however, all building materials are presumed to contain asbestos until tested. Also note the residences with four or less units, while not regulated under NESHAP, still can contain ACMs.
This essentially means that asbestos will remain an issue until it is removed from all buildings. When will this happen? Well, not in our lifetime. That being said, asbestos only becomes an issue when it gets into the air. So, managing asbestos in place, thereby minimizing airborne fibers, becomes important. Building owners should be aware of the ACMs in their buildings and take steps to minimize the release of asbestos into the air.
So, while no amount of asbestos is considered safe, we in fact breathe it in every day. It’s in the air inside buildings and outside. It’s also in our drinking water because at some point, your water likely runs through asbestos-containing pipes or the asbestos is simply a result of naturally-occurring asbestos in the ground in which your drinking water is obtained. The EPA allows up to 7 million fibers of a certain size per liter of water. However, it is important to note that all asbestos diseases (except mesothelioma) are associated with significant amounts of asbestos exposure. The dose-related diseases are generally associated with miners, millers, insulators, boilermakers, auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians, construction workers, firefighters, shipyard workers, power plant workers, etc. So while building owners and individuals should take steps to minimize exposure, the odds of contracting the dose-related diseases are minimal. But remember, mesothelioma is not dose related.
What’s the Everyday Person to Do?
Well I say, just be aware. You have a right as a building occupant, worker, employee, tenant in a multi-family complex, etc., to ask questions. Ask questions, become informed, and when in doubt, call an expert.
How Can We Help?
If you have asbestos concerns or other industrial hygiene needs, please contact EI’s Senior Environmental Specialist, Kerri Boddy, at (502) 499-2985 or firstname.lastname@example.org.