We grow up learning about the folly of asbestos. It’s a story in the same vein as Thalidomide babies, lead poisoning in the Roman Empire and too many more to list* – modern luxuries end up poisoning an unwitting populace. Nowadays people argue about cell phones being the next lurking health hazard – asbestos isn’t controversial anymore because we assume it’s gone (The Simpsons joked about it back in the 90s).
There’s a blanket ban on the use of asbestos throughout the European Union – same goes for Australia, Japan, and a lot of other developed nations. Conspicuously absent from the list is the United States. This goes against a lot of people’s assumptions – ask someone about asbestos and one of the things they’re likely to mention is that it’s outlawed.
Asbestos isn’t fully banned in the US due to a 1991 Federal court ruling that prevented the EPA from issuing such a ban. The logic was that banning certain uses of asbestos was too expensive, and that the number of deaths predicted over a decade (several hundred) was apparently below some acceptable threshold. This leaves us in a precarious situation: while the most dangerous uses of asbestos have in fact been outlawed by federal government (and legal thresholds established), there’s still a laundry list of items which are allowed to contain asbestos, here’s a few, courtesy of the EPA:
Cement corrugated sheet, Cement flat sheet, fireproof clothing, Pipeline wrap, Roofing felt, Vinyl floor tile, Cement shingle, Cement pipe, Automatic transmission components, Clutch facings, Friction materials, Disk brake pads, Drum brake linings, Brake blocks, Gaskets, Non-roofing coatings and Roof coatings.
The argument about the economic impact of an asbestos ban might have held water back in 1991, but nowadays not so much. The EU phased out the last few legal uses of asbestos over a decade ago and it didn’t cause an undue burden on their industry. Advances in materials science have brought the world suitable replacements for almost every imaginable use of asbestos, so the lack of replacement materials isn’t a sound argument anymore either.
While a full ban on asbestos will objectively save people’s lives, the impacts of asbestos are likely to be felt for at least another generation. Italy banned asbestos 26 years ago, but a recent study has shown that instances of mesothelioma in Italy are still increasing. Mesothelioma often manifests decades after coming into contact with asbestos, but if the entire world eventually gets on board with a ban, it’s possible that asbestos related deaths will be relegated to the history books by the end of the 21st century.
*but see also: patent medicines, cigarettes, lead additives in gasoline, radium on watches, mad hatters and mercury, etc.