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What is Asbestos and Why is it Dangerous?  A Historical View.

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral fiber, possesses a rich and intricate narrative closely intertwined with human civilization. Throughout the ages, it garnered admiration for its multifaceted qualities, including versatility, durability, and its ability to withstand high temperatures and fires. Yet, behind this seemingly remarkable facade, asbestos concealed a dark secret—its profound and devastating impact on human health. This article delves into the historical trajectory of asbestos, its extensive utilization across diverse industries, and elucidates the compelling reasons why it is regarded as a hazardous substance, fraught with severe health risks.

Origins and Historical Utilization:
Asbestos, a term derived from the Greek word “asbestos” meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable,” has been employed by human civilizations for countless centuries. Ancient Greeks and Romans astutely recognized its unparalleled fire-resistant properties, employing it in lamp wicks, textiles, and building insulation. Astonishingly, asbestos was even interwoven into burial garments, safeguarding the deceased from decay.


The History of Asbestos

Industrial Revolution and Prolific Manufacturing:
The advent of the Industrial Revolution propelled the mass utilization of asbestos. Technological advancements and the discovery of vast asbestos deposits in the late 19th century led to its widespread production and integration into numerous industries. Its strength, resistance to heat, and affordability made it an indispensable component in construction materials, automotive parts, textiles, shipbuilding, and an array of other applications.

Diverse Applications and Occupational Exposure:
Asbestos found its way into an extensive range of products, including insulation, roofing and siding materials, cement, pipes, and brake pads, among countless others. However, the handling and manufacturing of these asbestos-laden products exposed workers to perilously high levels of airborne asbestos fibers. Industries such as mining, manufacturing, construction, and shipbuilding witnessed a significant surge in occupational asbestos-related illnesses.

50 AD  Pliny the Elder records a correlation between illness and slaves exposed to asbestos
1899  Dr. Montague Murray notes the negative health effects of asbestos
1906   Dr. Montague Murray reported the first case of asbestos associated disease.
1924   Dr. W. E. Cooke names the first lung disease associated with asbestos as asbestosis.
1930   Merewether and Price report the first epidemiological study showing asbestos exposure causes asbestosis and death.
1955   Dr. Richard Doll publishes a study linking asbestos to lung cancer.
1960   Dr. Christopher Wagner publishes a paper linking asbestos to mesothelioma.
1964   Industry representatives report that “the only safe amount of asbestos dust exposure is zero”
1972   OSHA and NIOSH create the first standard for regulating asbestos exposure.
1976   The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirms all forms of asbestos cause cancer in humans.

Health Hazards and Asbestos-Related Ailments:
The perils of asbestos materialized as scientific research advanced. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can result in a myriad of severe and often fatal health conditions, collectively known as asbestos-related diseases. The primary health risks associated with asbestos exposure encompass:

a. Asbestosis: Prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers induces scarring of lung tissue, leading to breathing difficulties, persistent coughing, and progressive impairment of lung function.

b. Lung Cancer: Asbestos exposure constitutes a significant risk factor for lung cancer, particularly when coupled with smoking. The combination of these two factors exponentially heightens the likelihood of developing this malignant disease.

c. Mesothelioma: A rare and aggressive cancer, mesothelioma exclusively emerges from asbestos exposure, affecting the delicate lining surrounding the lungs, abdomen, or heart. With a lengthy latency period, this insidious disease typically manifests decades after the initial exposure.

d. Other Cancers: Asbestos exposure has also been linked to an augmented risk of cancers affecting the larynx, esophagus, stomach, colon, and rectum.

Regulations and Prohibitions:
In response to the recognized hazards of asbestos, governments worldwide implemented stringent regulations to curtail exposure and safeguard public health. Numerous countries have banned asbestos mining, importation, and usage, while others have enacted rigorous guidelines governing its handling and disposal. Esteemed international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have embraced the pressing need to address the asbestos predicament.

·      2005   U.S. Senate unanimously passes the first “Asbestos Awareness Resolution”

·      2008   Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act of 2008 – The bill would have banned more types of asbestos products and increase public awareness – it never received a vote and died in Congress.

·      2012   United States consumed 1,060 metric tons of asbestos.

·      2013   Over 50 countries have banned asbestos – the USA has not.

·      2019 US EPA 2019 Final Rule on the Restrictions on Discontinued Uses of Asbestos closed a loop hole in the asbestos regulations to use new asbestos products.

·      2019 The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019 to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to fully ban asbestos in the U.S. – this would have prohibited the manufacturing, processing and distribution of all asbestos and asbestos containing products- it never received a vote and died in Congress. No further federal legislation to ban asbestos has been introduced since.

Looming Risks and Global Challenges:
Despite substantial progress in asbestos regulation and the adoption of more stringent safety measures, the specter of asbestos-related diseases continues to loom large. Countries burdened with a legacy of asbestos use grapple with ongoing exposure risks stemming from the presence of asbestos-containing materials in buildings and infrastructure. The aging structures and inadequate asbestos management practices pose significant challenges, particularly during renovation or demolition activities.

To mitigate the risks associated with asbestos, comprehensive asbestos management programs are necessary. These programs involve identifying and assessing the presence of asbestos-containing materials, implementing appropriate control measures to prevent fiber release, and conducting regular inspections and maintenance to ensure the integrity of asbestos-containing materials.

Proper training and education regarding asbestos awareness and safe handling practices are crucial for workers in industries where asbestos exposure is still a concern. It is essential to equip them with the knowledge and skills to recognize potential asbestos-containing materials, use appropriate personal protective equipment, and follow proper handling and disposal procedures.

The global community must continue to raise awareness about the hazards of asbestos and promote safer alternatives. Research and development efforts are focused on finding substitute materials that possess similar properties to asbestos without the associated health risks. Furthermore, ongoing studies are conducted to improve asbestos removal techniques and develop more efficient methods for the remediation of asbestos-contaminated sites.

While progress has been made in reducing asbestos-related diseases in many countries, it is essential to address the global nature of this issue. Asbestos-related diseases do not respect borders, and countries must collaborate to share knowledge, experiences, and best practices in managing asbestos hazards. International cooperation can contribute to the development of unified standards and guidelines for asbestos management and the enforcement of stricter regulations.

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