On November 11, the American Public Health Association, or APHA, closed its 137th Annual Meeting by calling on Congress for a comprehensive asbestos ban.
The theme of this year's meeting, "Water and Public Health: The 21st Century Challenge," didn't even allude to the ban, yet the 12,000 public health professionals in attendance were almost unanimous in their approval for the measure.
Asbestos has been banned in about 40 countries worldwide, but not in the United States, where - according to the U.S. Geological Survey - asbestos use and imports rose by 1,880 tons between 2007 and 2008.
This is almost a 10 percent increase, and largely due to the fact that the U.S. no longer mines asbestos. This is a fortunate occurrence given the condition of Libby, Montana, where the former W. R. Grace mine wreaked health havoc during most of its nearly 30-year history (1963 to 1992, when it still processed the remaining ore).
In fact, the U.S., under the aegis of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), actually tried to ban asbestos altogether, but in the end the powerful and well-financed asbestos lobby water legislation down to a provision that limits domestic production to one percent or less by weight (or volume). Importation continues unchecked, and asbestos continues to be used in consumer products, construction materials and brake pads, to name a few.
Add to that the asbestos legacy of more than seven generations, when asbestos was the most widely used insulating product in the country, going into everything from boiler and pipe insulation to plaster, caulks, floor tiles, acoustical ceiling tiles and sprays, to again name but a few. Asbestos is still found in vermiculite, a soil conditioner and seed encapsulant widely used in the gardening industry. Vermiculite is also used in animal feed, as an anti-caking agent, and in fertilizers and pesticides.
Asbestos can cause asbestosis, a respiratory disease similar to asthma. It can also cause lung and digestive system cancers. But its most devastating association is with mesothelioma, a cancer of the mesothelial linings of the lungs, heart or abdomen that grows silently for 20 to 50 years, producing few definitive symptoms, until so much vital tissue, and so many organs are involved that the typical prognosis is between one year and 18 months to live.
In about 10 percent of cases, these cancers, caught early, can result in survival rates of up to five years through an aggressive and sometimes debilitating regimen of surgery, dual chemotherapy and occasionally even radiation. But this prognosis is given to only the lucky few. Most people die within a year of diagnosis.
Banning asbestos, not only from domestic production but from importation, will go a long way toward eliminating the legacy of asbestos sixty years in the future, but little can be done for the millions of construction workers, electrical workers, firefighters, insulators, maintenance personnel, mechanics, plumbers, railroad workers and telephone workers already exposed by virtue of their employment, or the millions they have exposed in their homes by literally "wearing" asbestos fibers home.
Asbestos is literally everywhere, in the buildings where we work and live, the schools our children attend, even the hospitals where we go to receive health care, and asbestos doesn't degrade over time, remaining a constant threat that can be easily inhaled as fibers from demolished buildings, or ingested merely by swallowing saliva.
None of the health agencies charged with protecting the public from asbestos - the U.S. Dept. of Labor, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA); the EPA under its National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) and its Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA, for schools); the Centers for Disease Control (CDC); and American Cancer Society, to name a few - have ever established minimum, safe levels of exposure; a minute or a lifetime can trigger mesothelioma.