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September 25, 2014

Mesothelioma Awareness Day 2014: Recent headlines highlight that asbestos is still a relevant issue

by: John E. Herrick

A couple of recent articles about renovation workers encountering asbestos while working on building modifications have recently caught my attention. And, with Mesothelioma Awareness Day coming up this Friday, September 26, 2014, I wanted to share some thoughts on asbestos, mesothelioma and the public perception of the problem.

The first incident involved our Capitol building in Washington, D.C. It seems that an asbestos removal project in the early morning hours of July 11 went awry. Contractors taking asbestos containing thermal insulation off of pipes and valves on the House side of the Capitol had an accident that released asbestos into the environment. Workers at the Capitol, including U.S. Congressmen, found out about the release because the area had been blocked off.

My first thought was that most of the Congressmen had nothing to fear from that potential brief exposure to asbestos. After all, asbestos diseases are characterized by long latency periods. Meaning one doesn’t get exposed to asbestos today and develop the disease tomorrow. If one is going to get a disease from today’s exposure it will be 20, 30 or 40 years in the future. So most of the Congressmen won’t likely live long enough for the disease to develop. But what about the young staffers and other building workers whose lifespans extend 50 or more years from now?

The architect of the Capitol called in engineers and industrial hygienists to evaluate the scene. The area was kept off limits until industrial hygiene air sampling determined that the amount of asbestos present in the air was “well below the regulatory limit for general space occupancy.” I’m sure this served to comfort Capitol workers – except that asbestos is a known human carcinogen for which there is no safe level of exposure.

The second incident occurred closer to my home in South Carolina at the Charleston International Airport that has been getting a long overdue makeover during the last several months. Workers there found glue containing asbestos that was used to install waterproofing. In this instance, the materials were identified prior to being disturbed, so there was no release of fiber into the atmosphere. But the presence of this dangerous product and the procedures necessary to remove it will add to the cost of the renovations.

The Airport’s Director remarked that since the structure was originally built in the ‘80s, asbestos “shouldn’t have been there.” While that is certainly true from a public health standpoint, it is not from a regulatory one.

Most of the public assumes, because of the well-known carcinogenic nature of asbestos, its use in products in the United States has been banned. And that’s partially true for the materials at issue in the incident at the Capitol. Back in 1975, the EPA banned the installation of asbestos pipe and block insulation, but there has never been a requirement that asbestos containing materials be abated and replaced with non-asbestos substitutes. And as for the materials encountered at the Charleston Airport, the frightening part is that those can still be legally sold.

In 1989 the EPA issued a final rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act that would have served to ban almost all uses of asbestos that hadn’t been previously banned. The asbestos industry fought that rule in Court and in 1991 the Fifth Circuit invalidated the ban. Meaning you can walk into your local Lowes or Home Depot today and find mastics and glues that contain asbestos among their ingredients.

I am honored to be part of a firm that has a long history in representing brave men and women that face mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases and aid in continuing to raise awareness of this persistent public health problem.

So, as we observe yet another Mesothelioma Awareness Day, recognizing the victims of that terrible asbestos-related cancer, isn’t it time we call on our leaders to join the more than 44 countries that have enacted a ban on asbestos?