What does asbestos have to do with fabrics?
Asbestos has been used in fabrics for centuries – the story goes that Roman soldiers (or, depending on the story, wealthy Persians) would clean asbestos napkins by throwing them into the fire – and they’d emerge clean and white. During the Middle Ages, some merchants would sell crosses made of asbestos, which looked just like wooden crosses, and claim they were from the “true cross” – the very same cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. To prove it they’d show that the cross wouldn’t burn.
Chrysotile or white asbestos is the form that was used almost exclusively by the textile industry. While some types of asbestos are characterized by brittle, needle-like fibers, chrysotile asbestos fibers are as soft and pliable as cotton or flax, which makes them ideal for weaving into cloth. The special characteristics of asbestos (nearly fireproof, chemical resistance, and high tensile strength) means that from the 19th through the 20th centuries, it was used a lot for specialty applications in fabrics, such as:
• Theater, school auditorium, and other public building curtains and seating upholstery fabrics
• Firefighter and industrial worker protective garments and gloves
• Boiler and blast furnace cloths and blankets
• Welding blankets
• Circus and camping tents
• Military textiles
• Laboratory worker protective garments
• Public building displays such as banners, signage, flags, and much more
Asbestos is an example of one of the common misconceptions people today have about products made with “natural” ingredients. You often see the word natural applied to products to make them more appealing, and by implication we think they’re good (or at least not bad) for us.
Asbestos is a 100% natural product – a naturally occurring mineral that was plentiful and therefore inexpensive. But asbestos is one of those “natural” ingredients that can never be good for us, unlike water – another natural ingredient that we need (but only so much of – you can drown in too much of this good thing).
The first documented case of asbestos-related ailments occurred in 1897, when a Viennese physician attributed emaciation and pulmonary problems to asbestos dust inhalation. The first documented case of an asbestos-related death was reported in 1906 when the autopsy of an asbestos worker revealed lung fibrosis. In 1917 several studies observed that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young.
Because many fabrics produced from the 1940s to the 1970s were made with asbestos fibers, textile workers were especially at risk of asbestos exposure. In fact, in 1947, an industry group called the Asbestos Textile Institute (ATI) commissioned a study on the risks of asbestos to textile factory workers and found that the industry should re-examine its threshold limit for asbestos exposure. But it was never acted upon – because the ATI believed it would damage the industry if it was made public.(1)
As the United States and many European countries began to look at the environmental and occupational health regulations surrounding the use of asbestos in products, world production has been shifted to third world countries. Although use has decreased substantially since the 1980s, it has not been eliminated.(2) Worldwide, 54 countries (including those in the European Union) have banned the new use of asbestos, in whole or in part. But in the United States, asbestos is still legally used in over 3,000 different consumer products, predominantly building insulation (and other building materials) – in fact, only six categories of products can NOT contain asbestos: flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper.(3)
So today, asbestos remains in millions of structures throughout the United States, as many people find out (to their dismay) when they are planning to repaint their home or do other remodeling tasks and must deal with the EPA rules for safe disposal or removal of products which may contain asbestos. Millions of people are exposed at home or in their workplace by the monumental quantities of asbestos that remain in the built environment — like attic insulation in 30 million American homes, for instance — following decades of heavy use. It also remains heavily used in brake shoes and other products, directly exposing auto mechanics and others who work with the materials, and indirectly exposing consumers and workers’ families.
Today, many researchers and medical doctors have provided irrefutable evidence about the dangers of asbestos and asbestos exposure. When asbestos is broken up, its microscopic crystal particles can remain airborne for prolonged periods of time, and when inhaled can cause a multitude of health problems.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, three of the major health effects associated with asbestos exposure include:
• Asbestosis – a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate lung tissues and cause the tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. The latency period (meaning the time it takes for the disease to develop) is often 10–20 years. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis.
• Cancer — Cancer of the lung, gastrointestinal tract, kidney and larynx have been linked to asbestos. The latency period for cancer is often 15–30 years.
• Mesothelioma– Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin lining (membrane) of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart. Unlike lung, cancer, mesothelioma has no association with smoking. The only established causal factor is exposure to asbesto fibers. The latency period for mesothelioma may be 20–50 years. The prognosis for mesothelioma is grim, with most patients dying within 12 months of diagnosis. This is why great efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.
No safe level of minimum exposure has ever been established for asbestos. Many of the first cases of mesothelioma were persons who never directly handled asbestos as part of their jobs. An early case in South Africa occurred in a young girl whose job it was to empty the pockets of miners before dry cleaning their clothes. The asbestos dust in the miners’ pockets made her fatally ill.(4) People who have worked in plumbing, steel, insulation and electrical industries have very high chances of suffering from asbestos-related disease. In fact, they could have passed it on to their family members through the dust that could have clung to their shirts, shoes and other personal belongings.
Today, even though global asbestos use is down, there are more than 10,000 deaths per year due to the legacy of asbestos exposure.(5) Asbestos kills thousands more people each year than skin cancer, and kills almost as many people as are slain in assaults with firearms.
With the science to back up the claims that asbestos is a serial killer, and with global use on the downward swing, wouldn’t you think that deaths from asbestos exposure would be going down? No – the U.S. EPA reports that asbestos related deaths are increasing.
Asbestos is an example of a substance that is deadly, but not for a long time after exposure: certain chemicals, such as asbestos, have extraordinarily long latency periods – in other words, time from exposure to time disease is noted can be 20 – 50 years. The ongoing increase in asbestos mortality in the US is due largely to this 20 to 50 year latency period, meaning that individuals exposed in the 1960s and 1970s are just now dying from their exposure. Better tracking accounts for the dramatic increase in mesothelioma mortality reported in 1999, but lung cancer deaths from asbestos are not reported at all, and asbestosis is still dramatically underreported even in worker populations where asbestos exposure is well established. Dr. Richard Lemen, a former assistant U.S. surgeon general, estimates the death toll from asbestos at 500,000 people in the next 30 years.(6) In a 2005 study, RAND similarly projected 432,465 asbestos-related cancer deaths from 1965 through 2029; this number excludes fatal cases of asbestosis.(7)
The legacy of asbestos, in the United States as in other countries such as the U.K. and Australia, is that the initial use of asbestos as a miracle fiber quickly gave rise to a burgeoning industry and adoption of asbestos in many products. This happened long before any detrimental health effects were known, so now, many years later, asbestos related disease is killing significant numbers of people. Environmental Health Perspectives last year published “The Case for a Global Ban on Asbestos”(8) We hope this is not a precursor for other epidemics of chemicals with a similar latency period – which is why so often we hear of this chemical or that being the “new asbestos”, such as nanotechnology, PBDE’s or climate-change litigation for example – because these were all widely adopted before being well understood, yet may well leave a legacy of death and destruction similar to that of asbestos. (Well, okay, litigation has not been known to kill directly, but you understand the point I’m trying to make.). And we keep harping on the fact that we continue to live with chemicals in many consumer products, including fabrics, that are full of chemicals that we know nothing about
Next week I’ll tell you what my nomination would be for the “new asbestos”.
(2)In 2010, Washington State banned asbestos in automotive brakes starting in 2014.
(5)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/facts/fact1.php