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A history of asbestos use in American manufacturing/industry

by Steven Elzinga

On Saturday Oct. 23, 2010, I was standing at the statue unveiling ceremony in memory of my uncle Merlin Olsen, who died at age 69 of mesothelioma—a rare form of cancer. Merlin Olsen was a star linebacker for the L.A. Rams and NFL Hall of Famer. His success as an athlete and actor made him a Utah hero. His statue was erected at his alma mater, Utah State University, by the Romney Stadium which houses the field that was named in his honor the previous winter.

As I stood, gazing at the eight foot rendition of that bull of a linebacker, I was dumbfounded. How could this giant be tackled by this cancer at a seemingly young age? Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. After diagnosis, the average time remaining is four to 18 months. While working in construction at age 11, Merlin was unknowingly exposed to asbestos from dry wall. Dry wall is only one of the many sources of asbestos in American industry. The following history of asbestos use in American manufacturing/industry will unveil some clues into other possible sources of asbestos exposure of which the public should be aware.

Asbestos dust is released from manufacturing/ industrial products and is not visible. In Merlin Olsen’s lawsuit plaintiff complaint, it noted that Merlin had no way of knowing the danger of asbestos exposure because the manufacturers did not give warnings about asbestos dust in the lungs. The consequence may not be seen immediately, further shrouding the cancer’s cause to the affected person. Breathing in asbestos in one instance can lead to cancer decades later. This lack of warning to Merlin was like other companies in the mid- 20th century who failed to print warnings despite their knowledge that even breathing a minimal amount of the asbestos dust could prove fatal. Also in Olsen’s court document, it cites that scientific and regulatory agencies globally agree that all asbestos types are carcinogenic and that there is no such thing as a benign level of asbestos exposure.

As early as the 1890’s, medical literature reported the dangers of breathing asbestos. In early 1900s, there were many early deaths in asbestos mining towns. In the 1900s researchers began to notice a large number of early deaths and lung problems in asbestos mining towns. By the 1950’s, hundreds of medical articles were citing that asbestos exposure led to cancer. Asbestos exposure in America from ship building alone was or will be responsible for about 100,000 deaths.

Asbestos exposure is still a problem today. In 2006, it was reported in Medical News Today, that despite known risks of asbestos, it was still being used today, in 30 million homes and schools. The article pointed out that under OSHA, the exposure limit is 0.1 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air for an average eight hour work day. But, a consumer would not know if a product fits these guidelines. All the same, EPA has stated that zero exposure is safe.

In the EPA Asbestos Materials Bans: Clarification written May 18, 1999, it lists asbestos-containing materials (ACM) banned and several ACMs not subject to ban. These bans were under the regulation of the Clean Air Act (CAA) (e.g., Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, or NESHAP) rules, and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) (e.g., Asbestos Ban and Phaseout) Asbestos rules. At that time, the CAA banned spray-applied surfacing ACM such as for fireproof/ insulating and for decoration. The CAA also banned thermal system insulation such as molded asbestos insulation for pipes and for block insulation on boilers and hot water tanks. The CAA did not ban troweled-on surfacing ACM.

The “Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Rule” was overturned and did not have effect. However in 1993, the TSCA had the following bans: 1) corrugated paper, 2) rollboard, 3) commercial paper, 4) speciality paper, 5) flooring felt, and 6) new uses of asbestos. The following ACM were not banned: asbestos-cement corrugated sheet, asbestos-cement flat sheet, asbestos clothing, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl-asbestos floor tile, asbestos-cement shingle, millboard, asbestos-cement pipe, automatic transmission components, clutch facings, friction materials, disc brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, gaskets, non-roofing coatings, and roof coatings.

The EPA (1999) stated in summary: IV. SUMMARY

A. BANS on some ACM products and uses remain at this time (April 1999)

What are they?

Under the Clean Air Act:

* Most spray-applied Surfacing ACM

* Sprayed-on application of materials containing more than 1% asbestos to

buildings, structures, pipes, and conduits unless the material is encapsulated with

a bituminous or resinous binder during spraying and the materials are not friable

after drying.

* Wet-applied and pre-formed asbestos pipe insulation, and pre-formed asbestos

block insulation on boilers and hot water tanks.

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act:

* Corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper, flooring felt,

and new uses of asbestos.

B. EPA has no existing bans on most other asbestos-containing products or uses.

EPA does NOT track the manufacture, processing, or distribution in commerce of

asbestos-containing products. It would be prudent for a consumer or other buyer to

inquire as to the presence of asbestos in particular products.

Possible sources of that information would include inquiring of the dealer/supplier or

manufacturer, refer to the product’s “Material Safety Data Sheet” (MSDS), or consider

having the material tested by a qualified laboratory for the presence of asbestos.


Since then, the EPA regulated exposure to ACM in school districts by requiring inspection and removal or encasing of damaged asbestos ( Further, in June 2000 manufacturers of crayons, with extremely low risk of exposure to asbestos, agreed to redesign their products. Later that year, the EPA prompted consumers to avoid asbestos exposure from vermiculite-containing garden products by making it damp and not bringing it into the home on their clothes.

In summary, throughout the 20th century and to the present, asbestos has not been safely controlled. Industry officials knew of the dangers, that asbestos was cheaper than replacement products, and fought and won to keep it in the industry.




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