I lead a monthly online support group for mesothelioma patients and their family members. Its goal is to help those affected by this rare, asbestos-related cancer. I provide a safe space where they and others going through a similar journey can share their stories.
In the last meeting, we had three survivors — all women — under the age of 55. For those who know a little about mesothelioma, these young women are in the minority.
Historically, mesothelioma mostly affects older men exposed to toxic asbestos while they served in the military or worked certain blue-collar jobs. The three women in the support group never held such occupations. This is a testament to the trend that cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are increasing in women and younger adults.
Why? Because asbestos still isn’t banned in the United States.
Asbestos imports have quietly soared in recent months. The deadly carcinogen has been found in consumer products such as baby powder and children’s makeup. An alarming report from two nonprofits — the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) — shows asbestos imports rose by nearly 2,000 percent between July and August 2018. The biggest spike was last August, when the U.S. imported 272 metric tons of raw chrysotile asbestos, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Commerce Department.
In January, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied a petition from a coalition of environmental groups and advocacy organizations requesting to close reporting loopholes to ensure all imports and domestic uses of asbestos products are documented. Officials with EWG, one of the nonprofits that co-authored the petition, said the EPA dismissed the need of increased reporting, claiming the agency “is aware of all ongoing uses of asbestos.”
But if this was true, we wouldn’t constantly be reading new reports of toxic asbestos fibers found in consumer goods such as crayons sold by Dollar Tree. News like this begs the question: What else is laced with asbestos without our knowledge?
Now is the time to crack down on asbestos use in the United States. Increased reporting on imports and uses should happen. Asbestos is currently not banned by the federal government. The U.S. remains the only developed country that has not fully banned on the carcinogen.
The EPA tried to implement a comprehensive ban in 1989, but the asbestos industry sued and federal courts overturned most of the ban. With recent changes to policy and administration within the EPA, environmental groups and asbestos-related disease advocacy organizations now fear an end to asbestos use is nowhere in sight.
In June 2018, the EPA introduced its significant new use rule (SNUR). The proposed rule would require companies to notify the EPA if they plan to import or manufacture various out-of-date, or so-called legacy, uses of asbestos such as roofing felt and floor tile. The agency would then review the request and approve or deny it.
Critics believe this rule opens the door to renewing these asbestos uses in the United States. Asbestos is still used in many products in the U.S., such as brake pads, automobile clutches, cement piping and certain roofing materials. Federal law dictates materials can be manufactured with asbestos as long as the mineral accounts for less than 1 percent of the product. But this doesn’t account for products the U.S. imports, which may contain asbestos — whether intentionally or through contamination.
As a patient advocate and on-staff registered nurse for The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com, I constantly field calls from concerned people asking if products they use contain asbestos. Sadly, I’m not able to answer these questions.
Asbestos will continue to sneak into our lives until we have improved reporting on asbestos imports and more oversight from agencies such as the EPA. The first step toward reducing asbestos exposure and diseases such as mesothelioma in the U.S. is a comprehensive ban on the import, export and use of the toxic mineral in America. A full ban on asbestos in the U.S. without loopholes is long overdue.
Karen Selby is a patient advocate at The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank.