The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is re-assessing the risks of asbestos use to public health. The EPA needs to do so because a previous phase out ban issued nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, was remanded and overturned by the courts only two years later - citing a lack of alternative options.
For years, asbestos had a long and storied affair with the building and manufacturing industries. The inexpensive but durable and resistant mineral was used in thousands of products in a variety of applications, including shipbuilding, new building construction and even automobiles. Wherever there was a product that would come into contact with heat and friction, you could almost always count on asbestos-containing materials to be there too.
But then we realized that all those years of use and exposure to asbestos fibers came at a steep price. The symptoms were all there; shortness of breath, weight loss, coughing, fatigue and general aches and pains, all of which can be tied to a plethora of other illnesses. Mesothelioma does a great job of throwing medical professionals off its trail because the symptoms often look like the flu or another respiratory problem. However, by the time the disease is actually diagnosed, most patients are given an incredibly bleak prognosis of 12-21 months. Even worse is the fact that, in many cases, mesothelioma patients were accidentally exposed to the mineral 20, 30 or even 50 years ago.
The Current Battle
Right now, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is re-evaluating the risks asbestos use poses to public health. The EPA needs to re-evaluate the mineral because a previous phase out ban issued nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, was remanded and overturned by the courts only two years later. Citing a lack of alternative options, most of the ban was rolled back, though parts were upheld preventing the mineral from being used in new products and prohibited its use in certain products like clothing, roofing felt and flooring tile.
But even with all of the talk about how dangerous asbestos is, few really understand how exposure to the mineral could eventually lead to diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis and others. When people breathe in airborne asbestos fibers, they get pulled into the lungs and become trapped. Those fibers then get stuck in the lining of the lungs, known as the mesothelium (and where mesothelioma cancer gets its name), and irritate the area. After some time, tumors begin to develop in the lung lining. In most cases, those who are diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma were often exposed to asbestos years prior, as the latency period between initial exposure and when symptoms begin to show can range anywhere from 10-50 years.
The Road Ahead
Despite a glut of information pointing to the dangers asbestos poses, the U.S. still lags behind nearly 60 other countries around the world that have already taken actions to ban asbestos. Among them are many developed countries, including the entirety of the European Union, Australia and even Canada, which has promised to ban asbestos use by 2018.
In the U.S., following strict regulations put in place by the TSCA in the 1970s and a variety of safer alternatives coming into the market, asbestos use has steadily declined. According to the United States Geological Survey, imports of the raw mineral have slipped to only 340 metric tons. While new imports and uses of the mineral in products has slowed dramatically, legacy uses of asbestos still pose a massive threat.
Although a final ruling regarding the mineral’s use in the U.S. isn’t expected for some time, the writing is seemingly on the wall. There are much safer and cost-effective materials on the market today and the market has seemingly drifted away from asbestos use in products. However, until there is a ban in place, asbestos will still be available and will continue to pose a significant risk to human health. The EPA has a chance to shut the door on asbestos for good and with the proper tools at their disposal, the agency might finally be able to make it happen.