Asbestos — miracle mineral turned health hazard for workers

Only a few decades ago, asbestos was thought of as a “miracle mineral.” The fiber’s heat and fire resistant properties, paired with substantial durability, made it a very favorable choice for building materials. Asbestos was widely used prior to the 1970s; however, it was soon realized that asbestos exposure was causing an array of health issues, particularly in those who have worked with the material.

In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its first ban on an asbestos product. Throughout the next 20 years the EPA continued to ban certain uses of the material and set restrictions, the biggest being in 1989 when the EPA issued a final rule under section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act. The rule banned the use of most products containing asbestos, but was vacated and remanded by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals two years later. By backtracking on the EPA’s rule, a majority of the restrictions in play were lifted.

Due to this, thousands of people in the United States and around the globe have been exposed to asbestos, which is known to cause health complications. Shipbuilding and construction are the most common occupations to be exposed to asbestos, with more than 96 percent of exposure happening in one of these two professions. Firefighters, ironworkers, plumbers, industrial plant workers and veterans also face increased exposure to asbestos because of their professions.

These occupations are subjected to a higher risk of developing diseases such as mesothelioma cancer, lung cancer and a chronic condition called asbestosis. Mesothelioma, specifically, is a very rare and extremely aggressive cancer resulting from breathing in airborne asbestos fibers. The fibers stick to the mesothelium, a membrane located in the lungs, abdomen or heart, and can remain there for 20 to 40 years before presenting symptoms.

Due to the long latency period, mesothelioma often is caught in the later stages and typically comes along with a poor prognosis. Those diagnosed are given, on average, 12-21 months to live, and only about 9 percent of mesothelioma patients live beyond five years. A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that malignant mesothelioma deaths have increased by 5 percent each year between 1999 and 2015. This coincides with previous studies that have predicted the rate of mesothelioma deaths will increase through at least 2020.

Efforts are increasing to have a full asbestos ban put in place. An asbestos ban is currently in place in more than 60 countries around the world at least partially, and hopes are that increased awareness will lead to a full ban in the United States to protect our workers and their futures.

For more information and resources related to asbestos and mesothelioma, visit the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance online at