You may think of asbestos as a building material that’s gone the way of lead paint — it’s something we no longer use in most construction projects. It can really only be found in old houses. However, asbestos continues to be used in some materials, like sealants. Now, due to a new measure from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asbestos may begin appearing in more products.
Asbestos is a mineral that was traditionally used for things like car brakes and theater curtains because of its fireproof qualities. It’s also been known to cause multiple types of cancers since the 1970s. As a known carcinogen, the U.S. banned its use in new products, and most people chose to replace asbestos products in their homes for their own safety.
While the new measure from the EPA doesn’t de-regulate asbestos use exactly, it makes it possible that more uses could slip through monitoring. According to the New York Times, the new rules would require that only 15 specific uses be assessed instead of all new uses. “Critics of the rule argue that limiting the review to 15 uses means other potential uses would avoid examination,” writes reporter Lisa Friedman.
In order for this policy to be effective, it requires that people believe the EPA has identified all possible uses of asbestos and then ruled out any outside of that 15-item list as benign. It’s worth noting, however, that asbestos carries significant medical risks with it. These are risks that anyone can be exposed to at any time — regardless of how it’s used.
The Unknown Is Scarier Than the Known
There’s a popular saying that the enemy you know is better than the one you don’t. This can also be true of health risks and materials that can potentially cause them. In the case of asbestos, there’s still a lot the medical community doesn’t know—although some symptoms are well documented.
There’s a chance that allowing new uses of asbestos could expose new populations in ways they haven’t been prior. While this is one way that new risks could be found and understood, it’s at the risk of the general population — a trial-and-error system directly in conflict with the Hippocratic Oath. It’s best to stick with understanding that the carcinogen is dangerous and should not be used.
Unfortunately, when politics and medical science find themselves in conflict, only one side wins out. The EPA’s latest measure may make it possible for new uses of asbestos to escape assessment, endangering U.S. citizens in ways previously unknown.
For example, other countries such as China and Russia continue to use asbestos in products. By limiting assessment, there’s a chance imported uses of asbestos could slip through into the U.S. With the number of asbestos-related cancer cases increasing annually, this could damage efforts to reduce cases in the U.S.
Health Risks Are Numerous and Serious
The health risks associated with asbestos exposure can be lifelong — if not fatal. Cancers like mesothelioma and lung diseases like pneumoconiosis are the most common ones you may have heard of. However, they are not the only two risks to look out for — plaque and pleural thickening in the lungs can also occur in addition to various kinds of cancers in the lungs, ovaries, and testes.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer specifically caused by exposure to asbestos. It is particularly dangerous in that it can take an average of 40 years after exposure to manifest as cancer. This makes it difficult for people to be diagnosed early, which gives them the best chance of a longer life expectancy with treatment.
As an additional example of asbestos health risks, pneumoconiosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in dust — but not just any kind of dust. It’s specifically dust found in many manufacturing jobs, like coal dust, silica, and, of course, asbestos. Those who work in construction, in foundries, or as miners or drillers run a higher risk of exposure to particles like asbestos that can harm their health.
While pneumoconiosis is technically any disease caused by the inhalation of harmful particles, the symptoms can be similar. Generally, you may be suffering from particle inhalation if you’re experiencing regular difficulty breathing and a chronic cough. If left untreated, this can lead to scar tissue in the lungs.
It’s critical for the health of people working in places with asbestos that they are protected from and made aware of the potential risks of their job. Part of protecting workers can begin with regulation — like from the EPA and other government regulatory agencies like the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Public Health. Exposure to asbestos can have lifelong damaging effects on people, and it’s the responsibility of regulatory agencies to see that they are protected via proper regulation and assessment.
Anyone Can Be At Risk of Exposure
While manufacturing and construction workers run the highest risk of being exposed to asbestos, they are not the only ones. Asbestos can be found in many old buildings, so people working in any industry in buildings with asbestos in the drywall are also at risk. Much like lead paint, some buildings simply haven’t been updated yet.
Homeowners looking to renovate their older houses should also be wary of asbestos exposure. You should strongly consider hiring a contractor to remove any asbestos from your home as you’re renovating. However, if you’re more a DIY type of person, you can take online courses to learn how to remove it yourself.
In homes, asbestos is usually found in the walls. However, homes built before 1980 can contain it in many surfaces, such as floor and ceiling tiles, roofing materials, and the joint compound used between pieces of sheetrock. If you aren’t sure if your home has asbestos in these materials, you can hire a specialist to take samples from your home and send them for analysis.
It’s especially important to renovate if your home has asbestos and you are a parent, as children should never be put at risk. Studies have shown that children are more susceptible to the effects of asbestos exposure. Essentially, you have nothing to lose by removing the asbestos from your home — whether you do it yourself or hire someone to help.