Deadly Risks Associated with Asbestos Have Failed to Stop Its Use in U.S. and Around the World

Currently, the U.S. Senate is debating a bill (S.852) that would establish a 30-year, $140 billion asbestos victims’ compensation trust fund that, in essence, would eliminate asbestos lawsuits and create a 30-year fund financed by companies facing litigation and their insurers. Victims would lose their right to sue for compensation and would be required to go to the fund for relief.

In addition, personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits have already resulted in the payout of billions of dollars in damages in the U.S., asbestos manufacturers have sought bankruptcy protection, and significant settlements have been announced in other countries to resolve similar liability claims.Thus, there is no disagreement or dispute that asbestos is a major health threat with long-term life-threatening implications to vast numbers of people worldwide.

In light of this indisputable fact it would be reasonable to assume that the U.S. and the rest of the world would have already banned the further use of asbestos or, at the very least, planned for its ultimate removal from the market. Amazingly, neither is the case.

As reported in the February edition of CancerWire, asbestos is still being widely used in the U.S. in existing structures as well as new applications.

The report is based on a recent interview with Linda Reinstein of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), an organization she co-founded after her husband was <"">diagnosed with mesothelioma.

ADAO is now an international organization that offers support, resources, and education for patients and caregivers affected by asbestos.

As pointed out by Reinstein: “Asbestos can cause or contribute to cancers such as mesothelioma, lung, larynx, esophageal, and stomach cancer and many non-malignant diseases such as asbestosis and chronic pulmonary respiratory disease. Ten thousand lives are lost in the U.S. every year to all asbestos-related disease. Each case is incurable and often deadly and every case could have been prevented because the dangers of this mineral were known in the early 1900’s.”

As significant as the death toll and negative health effects are, they may be only a fraction of the actual problem for a number of reasons. These include:

  • Asbestos-related diseases are often difficult to diagnose in a way that conclusive links the illness to the mineral;
  • Many people who die of cardiac arrest or pneumonia are never diagnosed with the underlying asbestos-related diseases that caused their medical problems in the first place; and
  • A vast number of people are (or have been) exposed to asbestos without even being aware of it – this happens in three ways: (1) the asbestos is present in man-made products the person is exposed too but unaware of; (2) the person is exposed to a natural asbestos source; or (3) second-hand asbestos exposure to the clothing or other possessions belonging to someone who works with or is directly exposed to asbestos or asbestos products.

Reinstein also observes that, while in 1989, the EPA announced an asbestos ban and phase out, only to have the ban overturned by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1990. “So we don’t have an actual ban on asbestos, but instead a regulation to reduce exposure.”

There is also the paradox that exists between often repeated statement by the EPA that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure and the rules allowing asbestos in certain concentrations in particular environments (which are virtually impossible to monitor on a continuing basis especially if a person is unaware of the presence of asbestos – OSHA regulations state an employee cannot be exposed to more than 0.1 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air for an average eight hour work day).

Aside from the asbestos presence in new products and materials, an estimated 30 million offices, homes, and schools are currently contaminated with the mineral. Any construction, demolition, or repair, of these older structures, therefore, can lead to asbestos exposure, just as what happened at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

“One life lost to an asbestos related disease is tragic; hundreds of thousands of lives lost is unconscionable. While we can’t reclaim the lives of our loved ones, we can make the world a better place for those who come after us.” Reinstein concluded.

In December 2005, major settlements of asbestos-related death and injury claims were announced in Japan and Australia.

Simply stated, asbestos is as deadly a natural time-bomb as the world has ever known. Yet, it continues to be mined and exported from advanced countries like Canada and Russia to developing nations where more death and disease will eventually follow.

Asbestos producing countries have repeatedly blocked the addition of chrysotile (white) asbestos to the UN list of highly dangerous substances that cannot be exported to developing countries without their knowledge and agreement.

In September 2004, “prior informed consent” (PIC) listing of chrysotile was blocked at the Rotterdam convention meeting in Geneva primarily through the efforts of Canada and Russia.

Canada is the world’s second-largest exporter of asbestos after Russia.

Numerous vocal critics of Canada’s policy on asbestos call the country’s actions nothing more than exporting death to protect the profits of a handful of companies and the jobs of 1,600 miners.

“What’s the difference between land mines and asbestos?” asks Dr. Barry Castleman, author of a respected book on the danger of asbestos. “A key difference, of course, is that Canada doesn’t export land mines.”

In countries like India where the exported asbestos winds up, unprotected workers slash open bags of asbestos fibers in order to mix it with cement. These workers have no choice but to work within swirling clouds of carcinogenic fibers.

In Britain, the Cancer Research Campaign has stated that its study into the European asbestos-linked cancer epidemic should sound alarm bells everywhere, “particularly in the developing world where uncontrolled asbestos is still very common,” said CRC director Gordon McVie.

The asbestos industry, however, profits greatly from exporting to developing nations with seven of Canada’s top 10 markets being so-called Third World countries.

To preserve that profitability, the Canadian government, the asbestos industry and lobby groups are doing there best to put a good face on the asbestos industry. Both diplomats and journalists are wined and dined and sent on first-class trips as part of this effort.

Philip Landrigan, of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine – the center that first linked cancer to asbestos in the 1960s – says the asbestos lobby’s claim that the fiber is safe is “absolutely untrue.”

“Asbestos remains an important cause of human illness,” says Landrigan. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, and that includes Canadian chrysotile.”

Julian Peto, head of epidemiology at the University of London, who wrote the study on the Euro-epidemic, says there’s no safe way to use asbestos in developed nations. In developing nations, where there is little money for protective clothing and ventilation systems, workers are being poisoned by the thousands.

“There is no way you can control it in Britain, let alone the third world,” Peto says.

Ten European Union members have banned asbestos. France, which banned it in 1997 for health reasons, now faces a Canadian challenge at the WTO. Canada argues the ban violates Canada’s rights under international trade rules.

In a speech before an audience of occupational health professionals from around the world who had gathered in Italy, Dr. Joseph LeDou of the University of California’s Medical School attacked Canada’s asbestos-promoting efforts.

LeDou said Canada was engaged in “the exploitation of ignorance and poverty” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” He accused Canadian policy makers of “setting up the developing world “for an epidemic of asbestos-related disease, the costs of which will fall on countries that can ill afford it.”

Thus, as the asbestos “problem” becomes more acute, public awareness of the looming epidemic and its origins takes on even greater urgency.

One of the more severe health risks associated with asbestos is a chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease called asbestosis.  Asbestosis occurs when asbestos fibers are inhaled into the lungs causing lung tissues to become aggravated and scarred.

Some symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry, wheezing sound made by the lungs upon inhalation.  Some of them more serious risks include cardiac failure which occurs primarily in advanced stages of asbestosis.

Unfortunately there is currently no effective treatment for asbestosis and it can therefore be completely disabling and even fatal.

Mesothelioma is another significant and widespread health risk associated with asbestos exposure and unlike asbestosis, it can affect individuals who are not directly exposed to asbestos but either live with someone who is an asbestos worker or live near asbestos mining areas or other places where the substance is widely used. Almost all cases of mesothelioma are directly attributable to asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma is a rare and quite deadly form of cancer that occurs when tumors form on the membranes surrounding the lungs, chest, abdomen, and sometimes heart.  Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 30 to 50 years following exposure to asbestos

This, there is the expectation that there will be a significant increase in the number of mesothelioma cases in the coming decades both in the U.S. and in all of the developing nations that are currently importing asbestos fibers for industrial use.

While asbestosis and mesothelioma are the most common health risks associated with asbestos exposure, lung cancer has also been linked to asbestos.  In fact, lung cancer is responsible for the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure.  Individuals who have been exposed to other carcinogens, such as cigarette smoke, are at an increased risk for developing lung cancer than people who have only been exposed to asbestos. 

A study from the University of Montana found that people exposed to high levels of asbestos may face a greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases

Another study, published in the May 2005 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found a significant number of cases of mesothelioma in family members of asbestos workers.

According to the findings of Dr. Albert Miller of St. Vincent Catholic Medical Center in New York, the cancer, which is mainly caused by exposure to airborne particles of asbestos, most often affects the wives and daughters of asbestos workers and may take over 40 years to develop.  A few cases involving sons and other relatives were also found, however.

The study concluded that exposure to particles of asbestos carried home on workers’ clothing and bodies was directly linked to 32 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in family members since 1990.

About 90% of mesotheliomas in men have been attributed to asbestos because of their direct exposure to the material at work. In cases involving women, however, linking the disease to asbestos has proven to be more difficult.

Based upon the study results, Dr. Miller theorizes that many of these unexplained cases in women may be related to having lived with an asbestos-exposed worker at some point in their lives.

Another study published in the second issue of the October 2005 of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine of the American Thoracic Society, stated that Californians who live near naturally occurring asbestos sources and who are exposed to low levels of the mineral are at increased risk for developing mesothelioma.

Dr. Marc B. Schenker, of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health, at the University of California, Davis, and four associates, examined 2,908 malignant mesothelioma cases reported from 1988 to 1997.  Over 50% of the men and 58% of the women, all of whom were listed in the California Cancer Registry, either had no or little exposure to occupational asbestos at the workplace.

According to the study authors, California has more naturally occurring asbestos source rocks than any other state in the U.S.  Previous studies all point to occupational exposure to asbestos as the cause of mesothelioma. But population-based studies, Dr Schenker says, have almost all showed some examples of mesothelioma cases where there was no exposure at work. The new study reveals that the living environment could actually be the culprit in such cases.

With respect to the proposed creation of a fund that would eliminate asbestos lawsuits, ADAO has already mounted a vocal campaign against the passage of the asbestos bill.

ADAO argues that the bill does not adequately protect the rights of asbestos victims and hopes that Senate does not support what he calls “this corporate bailout bill.”

ADAO, however, has serious problems with the proposed fund including outdated and incorrect medical criteria with respect to the symptoms, diagnosis, and severity of asbestos related diseases, inordinate compensation delays, and improper eligibility standards, inadequate funding for research, education, prevention, and outreach, and possible insolvency long before all present and future victims can access it.

While the group is not opposed to the idea of a trust fund, it would much rather see one that is fundamentally fair, adequately funded, free of bureaucratic delays, and guaranteed to be around long enough to ensure all victims would be properly compensated. ADAO also advocates giving the victims the right to choose between compensation from the fund or a trial.

Meanwhile, Senate opponents of the bill see potential dilemmas with the fund’s solvency and with the allocation of expenses between the participating companies and insurers.

Lawsuits continue to surface regarding asbestos exposure and asbestos related illnesses.  At the moment, studies continue to persist in an effort to learn more about how asbestos affects people who are directly exposed to the substance as well as individuals who experience second-hand exposure.

In the 1970’s government regulations stopped the widespread and common use of asbestos.  Today, however, it is still used under heavy regulation.  Asbestos is still used in more than 3,000 products such as brake linings, engine gaskets, and roof coatings.  Older buildings still contain asbestos as it was originally thought of as an excellent insulating material.

In many of those older buildings (such as schools), however, years of deterioration, leaks, careless alterations, and improper asbestos abatement operations have all played a role in producing airborne asbestos fibers.

The number of asbestos-related deaths continues to climb.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 77 people died from asbestos related illnesses in 1968 while 1,493 people died from asbestos in 2000.

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