Asbestos, a notorious carcinogen, is responsible for over 107,000 deaths across the world every single year, and 15,000 of those are Americans. Formed by a combined group of minerals that occur naturally in soils and rocks, asbestos is predominantly silicon and oxygen, and these fibers can be incredibly useful since they are strong, heat-resistant and tend not to conduct electricity.
As such, ever since the industrial revolution, asbestos use has been particularly widespread to insulate almost every private and public building you could think of, as well as in ship production, car brake pads, cement and in thousands of other products.
Only during the early 20th century was it understood that inhalation or ingestion of this material could scar lungs, and so, from the 1930s on in the UK, steps were employed to protect workers from the worst of their exposure.
However, while its use has declined ever since, it is still present in our lives today and is still taking lives. Given circumstances within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and new developments in regulation, it is time for us to rise to the challenge and make sure our voices are heard this month for Mesothelioma Awareness Day on September 26th.
Asbestos: A Political History
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) came into law in 1976 which permitted the EPA to assess and control chemical substances including monitoring over 60,000 chemicals. As such, 13 years later, this organization banned asbestos. But it only lasted until 1991 following appeals from manufacturers — the EPA hadn’t quite considered the cost of the ban. Unfortunately, up until last year, no substances have been regulated, and asbestos has continued to remain among us in everyday life.
Last year, the Frank R. Lautenberg Safety for the 21st Century Act was passed to re-enlist the EPA to monitor and control toxins once again. Although this is a major step forward given the absence of any regulation over the last two decades or so, we may still have to wait five years before we see asbestos entirely banned.
Members of the public in the U.S. and across the world are now urging policy-decision makers to agree upon an actionable change sooner rather than later to avoid another spate of unregulated asbestos presence. In America, tensions on this subject are particularly high given Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA. Even though doctors and research scientists assert that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, Pruitt is still non-committal about his position regarding its regulation.
The Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos is a killer. We know that. But what exactly does it cause?
Mesothelioma is one of the most commonly known diseases associated with asbestos exposure, and it occurs in the mesothelium — the thin layer of cells which line the internal organs in your body. Experts have since identified three distinct types of recognized mesothelioma:
- Pleural mesothelioma accounts for about 70 percent of cases and is found in the lungs’ lining — known as the pleura.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the abdominal lining of the body.
- Pericardial mesothelioma is found in the pericardium, or the lining around the heart.
Unfortunately, anyone who has ever been in contact with asbestos could develop mesothelioma as it is caused by the inhalation of its particles. Once inside the body, the asbestos fibers inflame tissues which in turn hinder proper organ function, and as such, mesothelioma is induced.
The World Health Organization advocates the elimination of all asbestos-related diseases and explains that in the interest of public health, each governing body responsible for the safety of its constituents should take the following actions:
- Realize that the most efficient step to eliminating asbestos-induced illnesses is to end the use of every type of asbestos.
- Introduce substitute products to take the place of asbestos and continue innovations to develop economic and technological ideas to set in motion its replacement.
- Ensure the utmost precautions are engaged before removing asbestos to prevent further harmful exposure to the material.
- Work toward earlier diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases, treatment and rehabilitation. Part of this initiative should be keeping records of those who are or have been exposed to asbestos to keep regular checks on their health and assess any changes in existing health issues.
It is more important now than ever to make your voice heard to encourage the EPA to make the right decision, and with some much-needed urgency to boot. This decision could also hopefully set a precedent for areas in the rest of the world that still use asbestos, too. Millions of people over the years have died as a result of asbestos exposure, and not just as a result of mesothelioma. Lung cancer and a multitude of related diseases are suspected to arise, at least partially, due to asbestos exposure.
I had the pleasure of being in communication with Charles MacGregor, an advocate at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. Charles supplied me with tons of helpful Alliance research and information for this article.
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance is an organization with the goals of raising awareness for this rare and aggressive disease while also educating people about the ongoing dangers of asbestos. In addition to those aspects of their work, they also advocate for an eventual ban of asbestos in the United States and worldwide.
Heather Von St. James, an almost 12-year survivor of mesothelioma and advocate at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, shared her thoughts and experiences:
“Having mesothelioma changed my life on a foundational level. Radiation destroyed nerves on my left side and as a result I’ve lost most of the feeling and use of my left hand. I think these things are pretty minor compared to what I could have lost. However, the fact that asbestos is not banned in the United States is appalling to me. It has been known to cause cancer for decades; yet, out of sheer greed, it hasn’t been banned nor has regulation done enough to control exposure.”
Charles advises that the easiest way to become a mesothelioma or anti-asbestos activist is to participate in events, fundraisers and awareness days:
“Mesothelioma Awareness Day — September 26th — is our biggest day of the year for awareness, but you can help out every day by simply showing support. Signing petitions and reaching out to your local representatives are also great ways to show your support and voice your opinion!”
Unfortunately, the route to asbestos regulation has been visibly difficult, and, therefore, it’s time to make your voice heard and make it count!