It's Global Asbestos Awareness Week, and we wanted to share in the awareness efforts by focusing on why asbestos is a safety problem for many people. With that in mind, here are a few myths about asbestos that should be cleared up.
Myth 1: Asbestos Is Banned in the U.S.
Many people who are aware of the danger that asbestos poses likewise believe that the material is banned in the United States. Not so.
While the use of asbestos is heavily restricted, there is no complete ban in the U.S. as of yet. Certain products that still contain asbestos, such as brakes, gaskets, construction materials, can have as much as 1% asbestos content. While this is a much lower amount than was allowed in the past, it is important to note that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
Some of the confusion around a ban comes from the fact that the EPA did in fact ban asbestos for a short period in the late 1980s. However, that ban was overturned by the courts, and since then the material has continued to be allowed in products that historically used asbestos, such as those mentioned above.
Last year, President Obama signed a new law allowing the EPA to review and potentially ban certain chemicals. In December, the EPA announced that asbestos was one of the first ten substances it would be reviewing. However, given the new administration in the White House, a lot of people are waiting to see if the EPA is allowed to continue its investigation.
Myth 2: A Little Asbestos Is Safe
As mentioned above, the EPA has stated that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. That's because asbestos is a friable material, meaning it is easily broken into minuscule pieces that can become airborne. When breathed in, these tiny, hook-like particles can get caught in the linings of the lungs, causing inflammation that eventually can lead to a deadly disease such as mesothelioma -- a rare form of cancer with multiple types of symptoms. Unfortunately, the disease has no cure, but there are several mesothelioma treatments that can significantly improve a patient's prognosis, life expectancy, and quality of life.
Confusion arises in that some government agencies, such as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), have published guidelines about allowable amounts of asbestos in some industrial settings. While these guidelines stipulate how much asbestos may be present in the air in factories or other places where asbestos might be used, that does not mean that it is safe.
That said, if asbestos is contained, it is probably not going to cause any harm. The real difficulty comes when asbestos-containing products are broken, cut, ground, or otherwise disturbed. If you become aware of any asbestos materials that are damaged, it is best to contact an abatement professional immediately.
Myth 3: Only Long-Term Exposure Is Dangerous
Similar to the amount of asbestos someone is exposed to, another common asbestos myth is that it only affects people who are exposed over a long period of time - such as someone who works in a factory or mine where asbestos is present for many years. However, even short-term asbestos exposure can be extremely dangerous.
Some of the confusion here may be due to the fact that asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis or mesothelioma, have extremely long latency periods, sometimes as long as 50 years or more. This has more to do with individual biological and physiological reactions to asbestos than the period of time over which someone is exposed.
Long story short, it is best to avoid asbestos exposure of any duration. If you can't avoid asbestos, then be sure to take every precaution to protect yourself and your loved ones from its deadly dust.
Myth 4: There Are No Good Asbestos Alternatives
One of the arguments for continuing to use asbestos is that no good alternative exists to replace it. In the early days of its use, asbestos was heralded as a "miracle material" for its heat- and fire-resistant properties while remaining easy to manipulate and incorporate into a wide variety of products. In that respect, there are few other materials that can replace the full breadth of historical uses for asbestos.
However, for individual applications, there are a number of substitutes for asbestos. These include:
- Silica fabrics that resist fire/heat as well as mildew
- Cellulose fiber made from newsprint, making it a "green" option
- Flour fillers made from nut shells or grain hulls (and therefore, another green option)
- Polyurethane foam spray used for insulation and other applications
- Thermoset plastic flour, often used in electrical insulation and auto parts
So while there might not be any single material that can replace asbestos wholesale, there are certainly some very good options - several of which are natural and all of which are much safer from a health perspective than asbestos.
Myth 5: Asbestos in Talcum Powder Causes Ovarian Cancer
Johnson & Johnson has lost all but one talcum powder lawsuit since 2013 (though they have successfully appealed 2 verdicts) over the decades-long debate connecting talc and ovarian cancer. Headlines seem to break every several months, renewing fears over the use of talc-based powders for feminine hygiene, and rekindling the arguments over which studies are correct, and which are flawed.
One theory that has been posited in the past is that ovarian cancer can be caused by asbestos fibers found in the talcum powder. However, this has not been proven, and cosmetic-grade talc has been required by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to be free of asbestos for a number of years now. Nonetheless, women who use talcum powder on their genital areas have still developed ovarian cancer - and talc particles have even been found in ovarian tumors, suggesting a direct connection.
That is not to say that asbestos in talcum powder is safe. Both talc and asbestos are silicate minerals, and they appear natural in deposits side by side. Asbestos in talc could still lead to respiratory problems and other health issues.
Be Aware of Asbestos Dangers
Unfortunately, asbestos is still very much a dangerous issue in the United States and elsewhere. About sixty countries around the world have banned the substance, and even our neighbor to the north Canada has promised to ban it by the end of 2018.
While this so-called "miracle material" is still around, however, it's important to understand the dangers it poses.