Asbestos is the general term applied to several fibrous minerals that have the ability to resist acid or fire, and occur naturally is some soils and rocks. Both the virtues and the health problems associated with these minerals have been known for over two thousand years. Historical accounts reveal that both the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder mentioned, during the first century, lung problems among the slaves who were required to weave asbestos into cloth. However, it was not until the early part of the 20th century that post-mortem examinations proved continuous exposure to asbestos could cause lung disease. During the 1930s, several asbestos products manufacturers funded a long-range research program to determine the biological effects of asbestos. For the next few decades medical researchers found clear evidence of the link between asbestos exposure and lung problems. During the same period industry continued to deny the connection. The courts were the scenes of conflicting testitimony between expert medical witnesses. Perhaps the primary difficulty was the long latency period during which it could take as long as four decades after exposure for initial disease symptoms to appear. It has been estimated 171,500 cancer deaths have been caused by asbestos fibers between 1967 and 1997. The epidemic is considered to continue into the third decade of the next century with over a hundred thousand additional cancer deaths.
A Major Early Case
Although there were several companies being sued by workers who had contracted asbestosis, lung cancer, or malignant mesothelioma, the majority was filed against the Manville Corporation. At the time, the corporation was the world’s largest asbestos company, with twenty-five thousand employees at fifty locations in the U.S. and Canada. In a move that shocked most observers, the corporation, formerly Johns-Manville Corporation, filed in 1982 for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code. At the time, the corporation was ranked 181st on Fortune’s list of the nation’s 500 leading industrial corporations, and was the largest American corporation ever to file under Chapter 11. The tens of thousands of lawsuits filed against the corporation convinced it to take a very risky gamble. Restructuring the company to protect its assets could place a stay on all the civil litigation against the company, or it could result in its liquidation. Attempts were made by the corporation to persuade senators and congressmen to provide federal assistance for those affected by asbestos related disorders. Senator Gary Hart, Democrat of Colorado, introduced bills in several congressional sessions to establish government compensation for the victims of asbestos diseases. Walter Mondale attacked Hart’s apparent bailout of the industry during their debates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Finally after several years of disagreement among the participants, resolution was reached allowing the corporation to reorganize with an agreement to payment of several hundred million dollars to claimants.
Public and legislative interest in the asbestos problem has been heightened by a range of recent events. The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 against a $1.5 billion class action settlement stating that it compromised the rights of victims. The Court also suggested Congress develop legislation to speed up resolution of the numerous asbestos lawsuits pending within the court system. Since the court ruling last year, Congress has been awash with asbestos legislation but few of these bills have moved far in the legislative process. Most of the recent action on asbestos has been in federal agencies and state governments.
The vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana was closed in 1990, but since that time there have been nearly 200 asbestos-related deaths among those who worked in the mine, and nearly 400 more have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. Federal mine inspectors of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration apparently recognized dangerous levels of asbestos during numerous inspections. That agency’s research arm, the National Institute of Occupations Safety and Health conducted research that confirmed the hazard. Yet there is no indication that either federal agency warned anyone but owner W. R. Grace & Company management. The company and the Environmental Protection Agency have instituted a free screening program for former mine employees and their families. The company CEO has pledged to pay the medical expenses for workers with asbestos-related diseases. The revelation at the Libby mine has triggered interest in possible asbestos contamination at other locations- the vermiculite mines in Virginia and South Carolina, the talc mines in New York, and the taconite mines in the Iron Range of Minnesota and Michigan.
After tests indicated that Crayola, Prang and Rose Art crayons were found to contain tremolite, a natural asbestos contaminant of the talc and a known carcinogen asbestos, the federal government asked the manufacturers to remove talc from their products. The talc used to strengthen the crayons reportedly contained cancer-causing asbestos in trace amounts. The companies agreed to remove the talc.
At the state level, California’s Air Resources Board has unanimously decided to prohibit the use of all asbestos-containing rock in any walking or driving surfaces. The ruling is based on the discovery of asbestos within the serpentine deposits from the foothills of the Coast Range, the Cascades and the western slope of the Sierra Nevada currently being used for paving purposes. The board also ruled that all ultramafic rocks be tested for asbestos content prior to their use. The move represents a common one by state and even federal regulatory bodies seeking to lower health risks to zero; this rule tightens the allowable asbestos content to the lowest detectable level -- 0.25 percent.
The activities surrounding asbestos could just be a warm-up for a similar series problems from crystalline silica. In April 2000, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced the proposal to develop standards for respirable crystalline silica in coal mines. The new standards should be released in February 2001. Several state and federal agencies are giving heightened scrutiny to silica as a carcinogen. As respirable crystalline silica and other materials come under scrutiny, asbestos may assume minor importance.
The Government Affairs column is a bimonthly feature written by John Dragonetti, CPG-02779, who is Senior Advisor to the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program.
This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.
Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.
Posted January 10, 2000
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