The danger of asbestos was covered up for many years. The book “Fatal Deception” describes the EPA and its failures to protect the American public.
Read our recap of the book below.
Of all the missed opportunities in the last half of the twentieth century to rid America of the plague of asbestos, none were more poignant than the unfortunate legal and political decisions that were made in 1991. Two decades earlier, the fledgling EPA had become increasingly concerned about the harmful health effects of asbestos. The large body of scientific and medical evidence, crowned by the work of Dr. Selikoff, had long proved conclusively that asbestos exposure was a serious health problem. By the late 1970s, the EPA, taking its charter to protect the health of Americans seriously, was working on a long-range asbestos phaseout ban. The ambitious project soon ran into a number of roadblocks, including objections from the Office of Management and Budget and an avalanche of demands for reviews by makers and users of asbestos products.
Ultimately, it took the EPA ten years and ten million dollars to
design and implement the ban. To its credit, the EPA met every challenge, and
on July 6, 1989, William K. Reilly, the administrator of the agency, formally
announced that the manufacture and sale of an estimated 84 percent of asbestos
products in the United States-including brake linings, roofing, pipe, tile, and
insulation–would be prohibited. The ban was also designed to stop the export
of asbestos products, which Reilly said left “a terrible legacy of
dead, dying and crippled.”
The ban came at a time when asbestos use had already dropped in the United States from 560,000 metric tons in 1979 to 55,000 metric tons in 1989, due in large part to “voluntary” cutbacks by asbestos manufacturers. In truth, these cutbacks were due to two factors, neither of them stemming from the benevolence of the industry. First, the asbestos companies were already facing tens of thousands of legal suits by plaintiffs with asbestos-related diseases. The plaintiff lawyers were finally doing what federal regulators had failed to do for sixty years: motivate the manufacturers to find alternatives to asbestos. Second, the federal government, primarily under the Jimmy Carter administration, actually did put some pressure on manufacturers to pull the asbestos out of their products.
In 1979, an analysis of the fiber emission levels of handheld hair dryers-nearly all of which contained asbestos as a heat shield insulator-was done for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) by Dr. William J. Nicholson of the Environmental Sciences Laboratory at Mount Sinai Hospital. Nicholson found that the hair dryers emitted “considerable quantities of asbestos each time they were used. “The fiber concentrations in the effluent of some dryers exceeded the highest we have measured in eight years of surveillance of environmental asbestos contamination,” Nicholson said.
Faced with such damning evidence, the thirty-seven companies that shared the market of the more than twelve million handheld asbestos-containing dryers manufactured or sold in the United States agreed to cease production and distribution of their products. Similar “voluntary bans were placed on asbestos paper products, beauty salon hair dryers, and some children’s toys, such as Milton Bradley’s Fibro-Clay, a school art-modeling compound used to make papier-maché.
The CPSC had already approved a ban on consumer patching compounds and artificial fireplace ash containing asbestos in 1977. In general, the CPSC took a more aggressive stance against all potential cancer-causing substances found in consumer products under President Carter, asbestos being one of them. In 1980, the agency moved to require twelve hundred U.S. corporations to provide information regarding their use of asbestos in products. Most of these efforts were halted during the Raegan administration. (In an ironic twist, when the agency added staff under President Clinton, it was forced to relocate its headquarters because asbestos insulation in the walls and ceilings of the old headquarters prevented expansion and renovation.)
Despite these “voluntary” cutback efforts by manufacturers, thousands of asbestos products were still on the market in the late 1980s, and the EPA felt strongly that a federal ban was the only effective way to stop the massive exposures that were occurring nationwide. The ban called for roofing and flooring felt, tile, and clothing made from asbestos to be prohibited by 1990. The second stage of the ban would have eliminated about 20 percent of the asbestos products on the market by 1993, including brake linings, transmission components, clutch facings, and other friction and gasket materials. The final stage called for the prohibition of asbestos in pipes, shingles, brakes blocks, paper, and most other products with asbestos as an ingredient.
The ban was hailed by most health experts, although some felt it did not go far enough. The intrusion of international politics could be felt in the hedging done at the news conference that Reilly held to announce the ban. “This action should not be seen as a signal to other nations, especially developing nations, that use of these products should be discontinued,” Reilly said. The reference was aimed primarily at trying to placate the Canadian government, one of the