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Friday, January 29, 2010

Asbestos: Not Banned in US But Use Declining

The use of asbestos, a known carcinogen, is not yet banned  in the US, but the use of it continues to decline. Asbestos has not been mine in the US since 2002 and therefore the country is dependent upon imports for asbestos products. 

The US Geological Survey reports that asbestos consumption in 2009 was 715 metric tons. In 2008 1,460 metric toms were estimated to be imported. Roofing products account for 65% of US consumption while other applications account for 35%. Over 89% of asbestos used in the US is imported from Canada.

The US government no longer stockpiles asbestos for use. It had been widely use in Word War II as a strategic commodity to insulate ships. Many exposures occurred in naval yards and to Navy personnel. 

Asbestos is the sole cause of mesothelioma, a rare but fatal asbestos disease. It is also causally related to many cancers, including lung cancer, and to asbestosis. One of the last known asbestos mines in the US was in Libby MT, which has now been declared to be a Super Fund site and asbestos there has been declared to be "a public health emergency."  Under the recently passed Senate health care reform legislation, Libby MT has been afforded medical benefits under the Medicare program.

While the US has not yet banned the use of asbestos, other nations have, The Republic of South Korea has enacted the final stage of a ban on the the use of asbestos manufactured products as of September 2009. Under the ban, asbestos may not be used to manufacture any children's products or products which asbestos particles may come loose and contact the skin.

Substitutes are available or the use of asbestos fiber. The US Geological Survey reports, "Numerous materials substitute for asbestos in products. Substitutes include calcium silicate, carbon fiber, cellulose fiber, ceramic fiber, glass fiber, steel fiber, wollastonite, and several organic fibers, such as aramid, polyethylene, polypropylene, and polytetrafluoroethylene. Several nonfibrous minerals or rocks, such as perlite, serpentine, silica, and talc, are considered to be possible asbestos substitutes for products in which the reinforcement properties of fibers were not required.."

Many workers, their families and their dependents have filed workers' compensation against former employers and civil actions against the asbestos manufacturers, suppliers and health research groups for the damages including the reimbursement of medical costs. Asbestos litigation has been called "The longest running tort in history."