There is a ray of hope peeking through on Capitol Hill in the form of a potential law that could ban asbestos in our country. The bill is called the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act, and part of it seeks to require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act quickly and ban asbestos.
Mesothelioma could be one of the most preventable cancers. Because asbestos exposure causes this cancer, if we were to ban asbestos and its use in products, we should not have any future cases. If we were to go into older buildings (workplaces, government buildings, homes, etc.) and remove the asbestos securely, we could prevent exposure not only for ourselves, but also future generations.
So why then haven’t we banned asbestos? There are companies that would rather put profit ahead of people’s health, and they lobby Congress to continue being allowed to do so.
For years, manufacturers knew about the dangers, but they chose not to tell the public. And even today, though the dangers are known, there are still laws helping companies say asbestos is okay to use in products.
Strong and Fire-Resistant: Unlocking Asbestos’s Properties
Since as early as 5000 B.C., people mined asbestos, which is a naturally occurring mineral like silver and lead. In the late 1760s to 1850s, asbestos was rediscovered because people realized it had many properties that were useful, like strength and resistance to heat.
In 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, a gigantic figure clad in an asbestos suit could be seen stepping from a flaming pit. Here, asbestos was proclaimed the “magic mineral of the future,” and it symbolized how far human beings have come: not only could we create fire, but asbestos allowed us to now be protected from it and thus have power over it.
As a result, the “magic mineral” of asbestos was put into everything—and, at the time, for good reason. As America entered World War II, new ships and tanks were constructed with asbestos. Asbestos was used in insulation around boilers, pipes, and other heat-generating areas on ships. Brakes, clutches, asbestos rope, gaskets, and valves were used in motor pools and on aircrafts as well as on ships. If one of your duties was repairing military vehicles, you may have been exposed as parts became worn and aged.
But asbestos was found on the home front too. Many homes were built with asbestos-containing products—siding, floor tiles, insulation, ceiling tiles, and joint compound—again, because asbestos is heat resistant, strong and nonflammable, manufacturers used it in many products, seeing it as an added safety feature.
Beyond the products that protected our homes, cars, and military, asbestos could be found in other places. Slow cookers, popcorn poppers, curtains, aprons, mittens, yarn, paint, hairdryers—certain models and lines of these household products were made with asbestos-containing materials.
Companies made pajamas and blankets with asbestos, touting its fire protection properties. At the time, advertising led the public to believe they needed these products in order to be safe. But with what we know today, can you imagine letting your child sleep in pajamas made with asbestos?
Manufacturers Knew About the Dangers of Asbestos
As asbestos became increasingly popular, manufacturers conducted a variety of studies over the years. Their findings showed that asbestos, despite its good qualities, was incredibly dangerous to people and caused mesothelioma, a deadly cancer.
They now had a decision to make: reengineer their products, remove the asbestos, and lose profits—or remain silent and make even more money. Many, if not most, manufacturers chose the latter. Since mesothelioma develops slowly (people can develop mesothelioma 20-50 years after their initial exposure to asbestos), manufacturers thought they could produce the asbestos-containing materials without anyone linking the sickness to their products, and even if they did, it would be 20-50 years after continuing to make a profit.
Why, in 2015, Isn’t Asbestos Banned?
Asbestos is not banned because companies that manufacture asbestos-containing products continue to care more about making money than protecting the lives of innocent people. The dangers of asbestos exposure were known as early as the turn of the 20th century, but many companies have chosen to hide that knowledge from the general population.
Asbestos awareness finally grew among the public decades after the companies knew of the hazards, when many WWII veterans were being diagnosed with mesothelioma. As a result, the EPA tried to pass a bill toward the end of the 1980s banning asbestos in products. Even though the EPA succeeded, lobbying efforts continued and the law was overturned a few years later, allowing corporations once again to put profits ahead of people. Currently, the only banned asbestos-containing products in the U.S. are corrugated paper, roll board, commercial paper, specialty paper, and flooring felt.
Worldwide, 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, in whole or in part. Countries like the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Australia, Japan, Germany, Greece, Chile, and South Africa have all banned asbestos. Even Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and Bahrain have bans on asbestos; but not the U.S.
However, that may change.
With the introduction of the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act, all eyes are on Capitol Hill right now. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA) are responsible for the bill, and their hope is that it will not only help mesothelioma victims, but also victims of childhood diseases related to environmental and chemical exposures. You can read more about the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act here.
The Irony in Safety
Some mesothelioma patients are blue-collar workers, first exposed to asbestos on the shop floor while shoveling raw asbestos into epoxy to make floor tile. Others were U.S. Navy veterans who were exposed to asbestos-containing products used in the building of ships that were supposed to keep them safe. Some were innocent children. Fathers would come home from long days at work, hug their wives and kids, and unknowingly expose the people they loved most to a dangerous, cancer-causing substance that was all over their clothes.
Asbestos use should be a thing of the past. We encourage you to contact your state’s House and Senate leaders and tell them that you support the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act.
You can find contact information for your state’s representatives here.
You can find contact information for your state’s senators here.