The dangers of asbestos have been known for a long time. Asbestos, a term that refers to several naturally occurring minerals, is the primary cause of mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 2,500 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Studies have repeated shown that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe. Despite this, it is still legal to use asbestos in products as long as the amount of asbestos is less than one percent of the product. So why isn’t it illegal?
The battle to ban asbestos
Banning asbestos has proven challenging. In 1989 the United States Environmental Protection Agency implemented a rule to ban asbestos and order the phase out of its products. Unfortunately, that rule was challenged in court in 1991. The rule was thrown out due to a technical issue and the laws governing asbestos use have remained unchanged since that time.
Last November, a bill named after Senator Alan Reinstein who died from mesothelioma in 2006, was introduced. The bill seeks to finally ban asbestos once and for all. The bill faces an uphill battle, but it is the right start. Even if a ban is successful, the phasing out of asbestos could take years and its effects will still be felt for decades to come. We need only look at Australia as an example.
Fifteen years ago, Australia banned the use of asbestos in its products. The belief was that Australians should see a drop in the rates of mesothelioma diagnosis. Much to everyone’s surprise, the opposite has been true. Despite the ban, Australia has seen an increase in the number of people diagnosed with mesothelioma. How could this be?
The reason for the increased incidence in mesothelioma is due in large part to the latency period between exposure to asbestos and the development of mesothelioma. From the point of exposure, when microscopic fibers are inhaled and become lodged in the mesothelium, it can take 15 years or longer before mesothelioma develops. It is likely that many of the people being diagnosed now, were exposed to asbestos before the ban went into effect.
Australia’s example shows that banning asbestos does make sense, but that it is only the start. It will take years after a ban is implemented to completely eradicate the effects of asbestos.