Asbestos has cost Americans more than 7,000 years of productive work, life and love.
Rarely is the societal cost of an environmental problem tabulated in such stark terms.
The figure comes from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of "Years of Potential Life Lost" before age 65, due to asbestosis, the lung disease most commonly caused by asbestos exposure. A naturally occurring mineral fiber, asbestos was mined and used extensively in insulation and other uses in a wide range of products. When inhaled, the fibers damage the lungs, leading to debilitating and often deadly disease. Since the 1980s, many uses of asbestos have been banned, but because the disease takes so long to have its full impact, death and disease continue to take a toll.
The CDC study found that 1,169 Americans are known to have died between 1968 and 2005 because of asbestosis. But those people cumulatively lost 7,267 years of their "most productive years," as the CDC puts it.
The rate of human life squandered is increasing, due to the latency period between exposure and the onset of disease, according to the CDC. While Americans lost 146 years of productive life every year between 1968 and 1972, we lost a staggering 240 years of productive life annually between 2001 and 2005, a 64% increase.
Construction workers particularly those who worked with insulation, managers and plumbers ship and boat building and repair workers, and military personnel lost the most time.
The asbestos public health threat did not end in the 1980s, however. Asbestos is still in use today, with 2,200 metric tons being produced in 2006, and an unknown amount is imported. Further, asbestos remains in the building materials in many homes and places of work. Some 1.3 million American construction workers remain at risk of exposure during renovations, according to the CDC.
The asbestos story also has lessons for other environmental contaminants. For years, industry maintained that asbestos was safe and that there was little risk to human life. That scenario plays out over and over again, where a harmful chemical or substance is used widely, even while independent research raises concerns and Americans continue to be exposed. It's only after years of research that the true toll becomes clear.
While the threat may not be equivalent, today several chemicals Bisphenol A, phthalates and certain PBDE flame retardants are controversial because some research shows them to be health concerns, while the industry, and often government regulators, stand behind them. That asbestos turned so deadly doesn't mean the industry is wrong, too, about these chemicals but the asbestos story should offer a cautionary tale, at least.
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