The fact that asbestos is still used to manufacture hundreds of consumer products in the United States today will likely come as a shocking revelation to readers who have known about the dangers of the cancer-causing mineral for decades. However, the lack of funding to adequately staff state programs responsible for enforcing asbestos restrictions is alarming, and should be seen as a call to action at the local, state and federal levels.
The health risks associated with asbestos have been known since at least the early 1970s, when the first restrictions in the United States were put into place. More than 40 years later, more than 50 countries have banned asbestos use. Efforts to phase out the mineral in this country were put in motion in 1989, but halted two years later as part of a federal court ruling that partially struck down the rules due to a lawsuit filed by asbestos manufacturers. More than 25 years later, tons of deadly asbestos continue to be imported into the United States, killing as many as 15,000 people each year.
While the 1991 court ruling extended the use of asbestos, we believe the industry has had ample time to develop safer alternatives to asbestos. The time to implement a new phase out or an all-out ban on asbestos use at the federal level is now.
Ending the use of asbestos, however, will do nothing to address the tons of asbestos-containing materials already in existence. From home products to automotive parts and construction materials, the widespread use of asbestos has made it ubiquitous in our everyday life. As such, federal laws regarding indoor and outdoor air quality were designed to protect citizens from asbestos exposure. An additional law was created in the 1980s to require schools to keep an inventory of where asbestos is located in their facilities. However, enforcement of those laws is woefully inadequate.
With more than 17,000 notices regarding the removal of asbestos from homes, private and public buildings filed with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 2016, the department faces a monumental task in trying to investigate and monitor all such activities. As such, the department has a self-imposed goal of inspecting just 15 percent of those notices. With just four full-time inspectors and one part-time inspector, the department is unable to meet even that goal. The lack of staff, as one DEQ official stated, "is a well-known fact."
Providing adequate funding to the DEQ and the Michigan Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which conducts workplace and indoor air issues, should be a priority for all lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation, in Lansing.
Lastly, we believe the public, particularly parents of school-aged children, should be provided with easy-to-access data on where exactly asbestos is located in each school district building. While such records are already required under federal law to be maintained, available access to those records is relatively unknown.
One local school district has already said it will be undertaking efforts to provide asbestos information and abatement plans on the district's website. Such actions aren't currently required under the federal law, as it was enacted prior to widespread use of the internet. But that seems a lame excuse in today’s day and age. We believe school districts should take it upon themselves to provide that information online as a public service.
Providing access to asbestos abatement plans not only provides valuable information to parents, it would also give staff and visitors an official record of potential risks. Doing that not only helps to ensure the health and safety of children and adults in school buildings, but would ensure a more accurate record of those risks, reducing the chance for exposure and future litigation, saving districts money and embarrassment.
No doubt, part of the lax regulations and lack of urgency regarding asbestos goes back to the latency period for symptoms from exposure to present themselves. As the leading cause of mesothelioma, asbestos exposure may take decades to become apparent. Even then, symptoms from asbestos-related diseases may go undiagnosed unless doctors are trained to specifically look for them. Sadly, the results of exposure are often fatal and always devastating. We can't help but think that if impacts of asbestos were more immediate – as with other contaminants such as lead – the threat from asbestos would have been dealt with long ago.
There’s no excuse to delay action any further.