Why Are People Still Using Asbestos?

The story holds parallels with that of the tobacco industry

Anthophyllite asbestos from Georgia USGS

According to the World Health Orgnization, more than 107,000 people in world die every year from diseases related to asbestos exposure. The material was used to strengthen clay pots 4,500 years ago, and make fireproof napkins as far back as 2,000 years ago. The material was eventually used in everything from bricks to drywall to pipes, prized for its flame-resistant properties. But by the end of the 19th century, concerns about the side effects of the material started to rise, and in the mid-1950s researchers confirmed that the material was indeed hazardous. But despite over 50 years of evidence that asbestos can kill, the material is still used around the world, even in the U.S., reports Nic Fleming for Mosaic.

Fleming’s feature-length story is "a twisting tale of industry cover-ups and misinformation." He reports on why asbestos became a popular building material starting in the 19th century, how the needle-like fibers embed into the lining of lungs and disrupt cell growth, as well as the decades-long fight to recognize the dangers it causes. 

“There is absolutely no doubt that all kinds [of asbestos] can give rise to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma,” Paul Cullinan, a professor at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, tells Mosaic. “It’s probably the case that white asbestos is less toxic in respect to mesothelioma than the amphiboles. The industry tries to argue that you can take precautions so that white asbestos can be used safely, but in practice, in the real world, that is not what is going to happen.”

From the first death attributed to asbestos exposure at a workplace — Nellie Kershaw’s, who worked at a company that wove asbestos cloth and died in 1924 — the evidence shows that companies knew the material was toxic and tried to conceal that information. Fleming writes about industry-funded studies that were not published, company doctors who blamed workers who smoked, and secret autopsies of deceased workers. Parallels with the tobacco industry are rampant.  

Even more recent stories are damning. Some companies argue that certain types of asbestos are safer than the others, and still use those. While asbestos production and use has declined drastically in some parts of the world, it is still common in others

Read Fleming's full story at Mosaic.

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