People are often surprised to find out that exposure to asbestos is still a significant issue in the United States. It might seem that in the 40+ years since the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 gave the EPA broad authority to regulate asbestos production, the issue should be largely resolved. But exposure to asbestos continues to be a risk, and the cause of serious illness for those with extended or intense exposure to the dangerous substance.
In 2015 the Environmental Working Group Action Fund released a study estimating that up to 15,000 Americans still die every year as a result of illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos.
The answer as to why asbestos risk isn't a thing of the past has to do with just how common the use of asbestos has been, and for how long.
The production of asbestos as a heat and fire-resistant material is not an industry that is tens or hundreds of years old, but thousands. It is literally as old as the pyramids of Egypt, with asbestos having been used in embalming techniques for pharaohs.
The reality is that asbestos is highly controlled but its use is not actually illegal. While the most common kinds of serious exposure are still related to construction and industrial jobs, even now the hazardous substance occasionally can be found in consumer products, including those marketed to children.
How Dangerous Is Asbestos?
The potential for health risks associated with exposure to asbestos was first theorized in the late 1800s, and the first death directly attributed to the substance occurred in the early 1900s. Even today, according to the World Health Organization, about 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos at the workplace, and while it's impossible to put an exact number to how many people have died as a result of exposure, in the U.S. alone it is certainly well above 100,000.
The danger from asbestos comes as the result of its extremely brittle and fibrous nature, where every visible strand of the substance is made up of millions more microscopic strands. When inhaled, these microscopic "fibrils" get trapped in the lungs and cause chronic inflammation, potentially leading to a wide range of illnesses including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
However, according the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the hazard of serious illness is related to both the length and the intensity of the exposure. There is no completely safe asbestos exposure, but the hazard for serious illness drops substantially if a person is only exposed once, particularly if it is only to a very small amount.
The reality is that almost everyone in the U.S. has or will have encountered asbestos at some point in their life. The vast majority of these brief encounters with asbestos will have no serious long-term effects. But that shouldn't prevent people from trying to limit those encounters, and it certainly shouldn't be a license for consumer products to expose their customers to hazardous materials.
As a rule, there is no exposure to asbestos that is completely safe.
Asbestos in Consumer Goods
The use of asbestos in consumer goods has primarily been as a method for making something less flammable or resistant to heat. While that use was much more common prior to the regulation restrictions imposed in the 1970s, asbestos still occasionally shows up in all kinds of products, particularly those that require some degree of resistance to heat.
Here are just a few common consumer items where asbestos has been found often as recently as 2018.
Asbestos in Crayons - In August of 2018 a consumer group reported traces of asbestos being found in crayons sold under the Playskool brand. The story noted that as recently as 2015, trace amounts of asbestos had been found in crayons from numerous major brands including Disney & Nickelodeon. The most recent findings, however, had been discovered in crayons sold at Dollar Tree locations.
Spokespeople for both the retailer and the Playskool brand promised to investigate the report which included concerns about other hazardous chemicals included in a range of products.
Asbestos in Talcum Powder - Talcum power is created from the naturally occurring mineral talc. Asbestos can also naturally occur within talc. When talc is used to make a consumer product, that asbestos must be removed or it can end up in the final product. It is important to note that the manufacturers of consumer talcum powder all claim that there is no asbestos in the final product.
Throughout 2018, Johnson & Johnson has been having to make that case in court, facing litigation in several states. In July, a judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.7 billion dollars to a group of 22 women who claimed that the company's talcum powder contained asbestos leading to ovarian cancer for the plaintiffs. The company is appealing the decision, and has successfully defended their position in similar trials in other jurisdictions. In January, Johnson & Johnson will face a similar case in court in Manhattan, New York.
Asbestos in Makeup - In January of 2018, the retailer Claire's pulled 17 products off the store's shelves after makeup including some products specifically marketed to children was found to contain asbestos. The culprit in this case was again the use of contaminated talc, which is frequently used in cosmetics. The talc that was used in products such as glitter and eye shadow for kids, contained trace amounts of asbestos.
As late as March of 2018, the FDA was continuing to investigate new claims that cosmetics being sold by the retailer contained asbestos. During the investigation, Claire's released a statement questioning the findings and claimed that all products sold by the company were safe. In addition, Claire's filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 in March. The retailer exited bankruptcy in October after eliminating $1.9 billion dollars of debt.
Asbestos is Still Out There
As a law firm specializing in representing mesothelioma clients and others who have been exposed to the devastating damage that can be caused by asbestos, we've seen firsthand the reality of the ongoing danger posed by the material. The dangers of asbestos exposure for industrial workers, miners and even consumers is far from gone.
There is a perception in the public that asbestos is a banned substance, which for many countries is true. But in the United States the use of asbestos is heavily regulated but not outright forbidden. While the last asbestos mine in the U.S. closed more than a decade ago, there is still much work to be done to eliminate the risk of exposure for everyone.
If you believe your exposure to asbestos has led to a serious illness, we are happy to answer your questions and discuss what options are available for you and your family.