Asbestos has a convoluted history in the United States. The naturally occurring mineral made up of six different types of heat-resistant and fire-resistant fibers was once embraced as highly valuable to industry, especially for insulation-related products. It was commonly used in U.S. construction, manufacturing, refining and automotive industries and thousands of products and homes, schools and commercial buildings across the country included insulation, pipes, cement, vinyl products like flooring and siding, and roof, ceiling and flooring tiles containing asbestos. But that was before the scientific and medical fields confirmed that asbestos also has a dark, ugly side. We have known for several decades now that asbestos is one of the leading causes of mesothelioma, a type of cancer in the lining of the lungs and stomach. It is also responsible for lung, ovarian and laryngeal cancer, and exposure to the microscopic fibers can cause asbestosis, a dangerous scarring of the lungs. Its sticky consistency can make it difficult to remove and separate its microscopic fibers from surfaces and substances like talc (asbestos occurs naturally in places talc exists), and the presence of asbestos has also been found in talc products like baby powder and makeup, including products for children.
The potent carcinogen asbestos was banned in Saudi Arabia in 1998, Chile and Argentina both banned asbestos in 2001, Australia banned asbestos in 2003, and by 2005, asbestos was outlawed across the European Union. Yet here in the U.S., asbestos has still not been banned. Since the 1980s federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several politicians have tried to ban the toxic substance, but again and again these efforts have been upstaged by Big Chemical’s well-financed lawyers and lobbyists.
To this day, the U.S. allows hundreds of tons of asbestos to flow into our country every year, primarily for the benefit of two major chemical companies, OxyChem (owned by energy giant Occidental Petroleum) and Olin Corp. The companies argue that asbestos is integral to chlorine production–including the chlorine used for public drinking water, which, if asbestos is banned, they warn, could affect availability of chlorine for clean drinking water. If you don’t buy that argument, Big Chemical also has other tricks up their sleeves: In addition to giving massive amounts of cash to political campaigns and lobbying efforts to persuade politicians to vote in their favor, the chemical companies are arguing that banning asbestos would cause them to need to retool their factories and would therefore create a heavy and unreasonable burden to the chemical industry. Their takeaway: asbestos must remain legal in the United States in order to not harm their obscene bottom line growth (Occidental Petroleum alone has reported quarterly earnings for the third quarter of 2022 that is upwards of $9 Billion dollars).
Change may be coming?
Hardships to the chemical industry or not, there is now a plan to once again attempt an outright ban of asbestos in the U.S. “The Environmental Protection Agency appears poised to finally outlaw asbestos in a test case with huge implications.” (source)
Which side do you place your money on to win? Before you decide, peruse this piece highlighting the history and politics of asbestos in the U.S., as well as what this has meant to the front-line employees who have worked up close and personal with asbestos.