Project Green Schools recently teamed up with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to help share some information about the Environmental Protection Agency’s asbestos evaluation and how we can help raise awareness. Written by Charles MacGregor 

In the years following the Second World War, the American economy was booming. We were building new homes, schools and public buildings to support a growing population, and more materials were being created to help keep up with demand. Asbestos, a strong, fibrous mineral known for resisting heat and chemical reactions, was part of many building materials, and by the late 1950s was included in more than 3,000 applications.

Despite some of the accolades heaped upon asbestos during the 1950s for its use in construction, shipbuilding and automotive products, concerns were growing about the risks the mineral posed to public health. It was especially concerning for those who came into contact with asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) on a recurring basis. By 1976, the EPA began placing strict regulations on asbestos use in the U.S. and in the following years more restrictions were put into place. Despite a failed effort to ban asbestos use in the U.S. in 1989, usage has fallen drastically from the more than 800,000 tons consumed in the early 1970s to only a few hundred tons in select manufacturing industries today.

Since December of last year, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on an evaluation of asbestos to determine what dangers it poses to the general public. Though the scope is rather small, there is still hope from environmental groups and labor groups alike that asbestos use will eventually be phased out of the U.S. The evaluation is expected to take years, however, and the EPA has been the target of several actions by the current administration and Congress.

Despite not being used in construction for several decades, asbestos exposure still poses a threat. The danger lies in the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of buildings and homes across the country that still likely contain asbestos somewhere. If an overzealous do-it-yourselfer or careless renovator doesn’t have the home inspected for asbestos where they’re working, it opens up the threat of accidental exposure to airborne asbestos.

Asbestos is considered relatively harmless when left contained within a product or material, but can quickly cause trouble when those materials are damaged. Crumbling and broken items may release fibers into the air, which can then enter the lungs. Eventually, those tiny fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs, causing irritation. In other cases, though it’s much more rare, these fibers may end up in the linings of the abdomen or heart, though those circumstances are much more rare. Years later, tumors may form, causing mesothelioma cancer. Sadly, the disease is often not caught until its later stages, when the prognosis is especially poor and treatment options are more limited than in earlier stages.
More than 55 countries have asbestos bans in place, including the entirety of the European Union, Australia and Japan. Canada is also set to join the growing list as it passed legislation last year promising to ban the substance by 2018. Not included on that list are major asbestos exporters like Brazil and Russia, and major importers like China and India. The U.S. has still not banned the mineral since its first attempt in 1989 to phase out asbestos use over several years, which was overturned by the courts two years later. While much of the final ruling was overturned, the first stage of the phase-out was kept in place.

Until the EPA completes its evaluation, and probably even afterwards, it’s important to remember the importance of staying alert and educating yourself about the dangers of exposure. If you plan on doing your own home renovations or will come into contact with areas that have damaged materials, take precautions to limit accidental exposure. Never attempt to remove asbestos on your own, especially if you suspect the mineral might be hiding out inside your home. The job is always best left to a licensed professional who can not only determine if asbestos is lurking inside your house, but can also determine the best course of action.

Advocacy is also an important part of the puzzle here in the U.S. While some people are acutely aware of how dangerous asbestos is, there are others who believe it has already been banned or don’t fully understand the risks associated with exposure. Raising awareness can be as easy as supporting local organizations that promote proper home safety or by participating in events throughout the year like Mesothelioma Awareness Day and Asbestos Awareness Week.

Despite being called a “miracle mineral” and a “boon to humanity,” only 60 years ago, the need for asbestos has waned. Much safer alternatives are on the market now, and the risks of developing mesothelioma, asbestosis or another disease due to accidental exposure are too great. We can’t turn back the clock to address previous widespread asbestos use, but we can use our voices now to ensure it doesn’t have a future.