Asbestos Deserves Attention for More Than Just a Week

March 10, 2012  |  Mesothelioma

Last week a good thing happened: April 1 through 7 was designated as “National Asbestos Awareness Week.”

Asbestos Mine in Libby, MontanaBut what happens after that? If this year is anything like most, asbestos will fall into oblivion once again — forgotten by our lawmakers for another year. But asbestos is an issue that needs our attention every day, not just for seven days in April.

Sen. Max Baucus, who led the charge for the resolution and was joined by several other senators, knows that well. Baucus is from Montana where the business of mining, trucking and manufacturing asbestos products from a local vermiculite mine crippled the small town of Libby.

It’s unfathomable that asbestos is not banned in the United States. In fact, we still allow asbestos to be imported for use in products such as building materials, pipes and some household goods. Asbestos is most commonly used in roofing products. And it’s no secret that people who work closely with asbestos are prone to developing cancers such as mesothelioma. They contract asbestos-related diseases (not just mesothelioma but also lung cancer and asbestosis) by breathing in or ingesting microscopic airborne particles.

There’s no cure for mesothelioma once the damage is done, yet there’s a solution that could prevent future suffering. Instead of just passing a resolution that gives a nod to asbestos, our politicians could step up and do what virtually every other country has done: ban the use of asbestos altogether from the United States.

As early as the 1920s, companies that dealt in the asbestos trade knew that they were using a lethal toxic mineral. Some reports linking asbestos to cancer go back to London in the late 19th century. Yet the asbestos manufacturers denied, and in some cases suppressed, data that could have served as a warning of the asbestos dangers to workers and customers.

Industry leaders could have taken measures long ago to protect workers from asbestos motes floating in the manufacturing facilities. But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s with the proliferation of asbestos-related lawsuits that executives began taking notice of the asbestos dangers. Bottom line? Losing lives wasn’t enough; it took losing millions of dollars for the companies to begin making changes.

Even today many companies rely on asbestos for its resistance to heat, water and corrosion. In 2011 alone United States manufacturers imported 1,100 metric tons of asbestos in the first seven months of the year. That showed an increase over imports in 2009 and 2010. Most of the asbestos came from Canada where mining has become a heated political debate. The closure of two Canadian mines in 2011 likely contributed to the increased rate of asbestos imports because manufacturers wanted to stockpile the resources.

Asbestos mines in Russia, Brazil and Zimbabwe will no doubt fill the future demand for asbestos unless American politicians decide to issue a much-needed moratorium.

Designating seven days in April as National Asbestos Awareness Week is not enough to solve America’s asbestos crisis.

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