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There is no minimum safe exposure level for any form of asbestos fibres, according to the World Health Organization.
September 6, 2012 6:27 AM   Subscribe

More Australians have died from asbestos poisoning than died during the First World War so the Australian Government has just announced the creation of the Office of Asbestos Safety following the receipt of the Asbestos Management Review (pdf). Its aim to to complete the removal of all asbestos from Australian buildings by 2030. Asbestos is a global issue, and while Australia is keen to eliminate its use Canada is still mining and exporting the toxic substance which keeps turning up everywhere.

Most Australian houses built before 1987 are likely to contain at least some asbestos. The government is concerned about a third wave of Australians could be at risk from exposure to the substance which leads to diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
In 2010, mesothelioma killed 642 people and there are many more with lung cancers related to exposure to asbestos, contracted from acts as simple as drilling in a picture hook or renovating a house.
Numbers of deaths from asbestos are not due to peak until 2020. The use of asbestos was banned in Australia in 2003 after decades of warnings of a health and legal time bomb.

However, recently some Chinese imports have been found to contain asbestos.

Knowing & recognising the dangers around the home and work areas.
Do you know what's really in your home?
EPA asbestos web site.
posted by Mezentian (28 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
For US folks, it's also worth noting that the US ban on asbestos was overturned in 1991, leaving most forms of asbestos still legal in the US.

As recently as a couple years ago, asbestos-containing products could be purchased at home improvement stores in the US. (They probably still can be; I just haven't looked recently.) Check for "Chrysotile" on any contents lists when buying building materials, especially mastics and floor tiles.

Australians have had the brunt of asbestos exposure partially because crocidolite was more commonly used, as opposed to chrysotile, the most common type in the US. Crocidolite is commonly thought to be the most dangerous type of asbestos.
posted by pie ninja at 6:36 AM on September 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


On the other hand, the good thing about asbestos poisoning is that it dramatically lowers your chance of dying from spontaneous combustion.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:04 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's a little weird to be using words like "poisonous" and "toxic" for what is actually a physical, not chemical, problem. Which is why it may be OK to use asbestos in some products, if the physical factors are no longer at play.
posted by DU at 7:11 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


leaving most forms of asbestos still legal in the US.

Good lord.
Here all asbestos is considered just about the worst thing ever (although almost all tradesmen we have had through have been ... less than careful). That it is still legal in the US blows my mind.

According to the Asbestos Diseases group here Chrysotile Asbestos (white asbestos) is only slightly less worse, but of course we had the blue asbestos mines, and that stuff is everywhere.
posted by Mezentian at 7:12 AM on September 6, 2012


A lot of this international lobbying was done by Canada, mostly on behalf od the Quebec mining industry. They successfully rebranded and relaxed export laws to make sure that mineral production stays nice and high.

For awhile those dodgy markets were good enough, but now they need to expand back into those choice markets like the US.

You know what's funny? Canadian lobbyists have successfully gotten laws overturned in the US such that you can use asbesto is places in the US that are still illegal in Canada. The industry is treating the US market like it treats the developing world market.

Gobalism bites back like a motherfucker, don't it?
posted by clvrmnky at 7:26 AM on September 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Asbestosis BBC ... Wikipedia
posted by mrgrimm at 7:43 AM on September 6, 2012


WHAT.

i thought the US was trying to remove and get rid of all our asbestos? And now I hear they're still putting it in tiles and shit? WHAT THE HELL
posted by rebent at 7:49 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes; blame Canada.
posted by scruss at 8:01 AM on September 6, 2012


"You're welcome!"
—Canada
I know you'll all be thrilled to hear that a large portion of Canadian asbestos is exported to India, where there are basically no rules whatsoever about the safe handling of the materials and workers rarely, if ever, wear adequate breathing protection while sifting barehanded through loose fibers.

I'm a bit concerned, though, that this Australian wave of panic will cause people to carelessly tear out the asbestos in their homes by themselves. The asbestos you'd find in a home is generally safe unless you stir up the fibers, and there's no better way to stir up the fibers than DIY removal.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:06 AM on September 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


This was actually a recurring point of debate in the Quebec provincial elections over the past few weeks; the Liberals were entirely in favour of keeping the mines open (and in fact had announced a $58 million loan to re-open the gigantic Jeffery mine), and the other two major parties (the PQ and the fledgeling CAQ) were dead set against asbestos mining and swore they would retract the loan if elected and shut down asbestos mining in the province.

It's a kinda-sorta complicated issue here, with ferocious lobbying from the asbestos industry that uses a lot of weaselly "if used appropriately" language, and counter-lobbying from the anti-asbestos groups that the places we export to are generally not places where there are robust safe-use safeguards in place (see Sys Rq's comment above).

The Liberals had two reasons to support the industry: their "Conservative Lite" stance as our resident money-talks, profit-first party, and the fact that they were looking at a sound drubbing in an upcoming (when the loan was proposed) election. In the town of Asbestos, as one might imagine, there tends to be a pro-asbestos slant. Where "industry first" ends and "we need every vote we can get" begins I'm not sure.

The Liberals lost the election: the PQ, with the CAQ, have enough votes to legislate asbestos out of existence in the province. It's one of the silver linings of the election for me. Whether they'll actually have the political will to do so is another question: at the end of the day it's a lot of money and at least two seats' worth of votes in the provincial assembly.
posted by Shepherd at 8:31 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm a bit concerned, though, that this Australian wave of panic will cause people to carelessly tear out the asbestos in their homes by themselves.

I seriously doubt that. The "panic" has been running for decades. People know very well that asbestos just isn't to be fucked with.
posted by Talez at 8:35 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


People know very well that asbestos just isn't to be fucked with.

Yep, there's no frenzied asbestos panic going on right now. The main issue is awareness that it's there at all. Due to the James Hardie debacle and the sterling efforts of people like Bernie Banton (who I met shortly before his death in 2007) means that people are aware that asbestos is nasty stuff. It's more that it's everywhere - in fibro, in fuse boxes - all over the place.

Its aim to to complete the removal of all asbestos from Australian buildings by 2030.

The OAS is based on the Asbestos Management Review, which recommended removing asbestos from all commercial and government buildings by 2030, and to institute a labelling scheme for pre-1987 private buildings, allowing it to be dealt with over time. Since the rat bastards at James Hardie skipped town, they won't be involved in remediation costs.
posted by zamboni at 9:11 AM on September 6, 2012


Just to present the other side of asbestos use, are the deaths caused by using asbestos greater or lesser than the deaths caused by fires that would happen if asbestos wasn't used? I think this is not really a good argument for the use of asbestos since it is used SO much in stuff that isn't going to catch on fire in the first place-my big exposure risk is the amount of work I have done on old car brakes that used to use it to bind the material that brake linings were made of (BTW the use of metallic fibers now for the same job is one reason brake pads can make high pitched squealing noises sometimes). But i don't know if such a trade off is even measurable but it sure is something to think about it in this and many other issues we face in industrialized society.
posted by bartonlong at 10:38 AM on September 6, 2012


i thought the US was trying to remove and get rid of all our asbestos? And now I hear they're still putting it in tiles and shit?

My understanding is that asbestos when encapsulated in floor tiles or shingles is actually pretty benign, unless you somehow grind up the floor tiles somehow during installation or removal. Where asbestos is really problematic is as fluffy insulation. And the really bad use is/was as blown-in insulation. (Which I'm pretty sure is banned, and was the source of most serious health issues in the US.) This was common in shipbuilding, and in some buildings as a fire insulator around structural components.

The typical recommendation for asbestos flooring or pipe insulation, in my experience, is to leave the stuff the hell alone. If it's doing its job and you don't need to remove it, you just leave it there. It's when you need to renovate for some other reason that you have to be careful.

Asbestos isn't toxic in the same way that, say, PCBs are; the health threat depends on the form that the asbestos is in, and how you're working with it. I think we could probably stand to use less of it, and restrict it to uses where people are going to be careful when cutting into it, but I'm a lot more scared of other substances that used to be common (the aforementioned PCBs, for one).
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:57 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


That first sentence really stands out and could be misleading. At first I thought it meant the total number of worldwide deaths in WWI, which was 37 million! The sentence I think is related to the number of Australian military deaths, which was around 62,000. Tragedy nonetheless.
posted by Rashomon at 2:02 PM on September 6, 2012


Lincoln Hall died of mesothelioma earlier this year.
posted by andraste at 2:07 PM on September 6, 2012


are the deaths caused by using asbestos greater or lesser than the deaths caused by fires that would happen if asbestos wasn't used?

The asbestos in tiles and shingles, for example, isn't there to prevent fire or even resist heat, although it might render them fire-resistant. It's there to prevent weathering/wear, and increase product lifespan. They even used to put it in asphalt on main roads to make the surface last longer (as far as I know, up to the 1970's).

What Kadin2048 said. Especially the part about "leave the stuff the hell alone."
posted by sneebler at 3:10 PM on September 6, 2012


For US folks, it's also worth noting that the US ban on asbestos was overturned in 1991, leaving most forms of asbestos still legal in the US.

Thank Canada.

No thank the fucking gutless FDA and our congr-assmen who will sell out safety to the highest bidder.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:49 PM on September 6, 2012


Here all asbestos is considered just about the worst thing ever (although almost all tradesmen we have had through have been ... less than careful). That it is still legal in the US blows my mind.

It's considered the worst thing ever here too. You should see what has to happen when a building needs to have its asbestos removed.

I'd be curious to see what products actually contain asbestos. Even without a ban, it would be a product liability suicide to put it into anything.
posted by gjc at 5:12 PM on September 6, 2012


Did someone mention Bernie Banton?
posted by Mezentian at 5:13 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


While my wife was home with our newborn second child, the hormones kicked in and she screamingly demanded that the AC sheet (where A stands for you know what) eaves lining be removed. So we got these tradies in and they were the shittiest and shonkiest people ever, they caused far more exposure risk for us than the relatively harmless sheet sitting there. Dust and fibres all over the back yard. So there I was dressed up in disposable overalls and a mask, effing vacuuming the entire back yard and then throwing the vacuum away. Not happy.
posted by wilful at 5:24 PM on September 6, 2012


Blue Sky Mine, by the Oils.
posted by wilful at 5:27 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the biggest issue for me in all of this was the revelation that Fibro houses are made with asbestos cement sheets. Somehow I got though all these years not knowing this fact.

You can guess what my house may be made of. Or our old fence, which cracked often until we replaced it.

I think the proposed regulations for housing sales and asbestos testing are a good idea, although I am concerned that, like wilful indicates, we're going to see a LOT of shonky operators come out of the woodwork to get into the asbestos removal business (see also solar power installation, insulation companies).

I've already had words with at least one builder over improper removal and disposal of asbestos.
posted by Mezentian at 6:06 PM on September 6, 2012


Back in elementary school, they gave us bags of powdered asbestos to mix up with water into a paste. We'd use this paste to construct model Igloos, Mud Huts, and Volcanoes.

When the teacher left the room,we'd roll up notepaper into straws like pea-shooters, make an asbestos pea in our mouth, and then shoot tiny asbestos balls at each other across tab room.

I went back there about 7-8 years ago, when I was selling interactive whiteboards into the K-12 channel, and could clearly see the painted-over asbestos lumps on the ceiling.

Don's ask about the mercury barometer I made.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:20 PM on September 6, 2012


One day I was driving down a dirt road in CA with a truck full of people, one of whom happened to be a geologist and happened to mention that dirt roads are full of asbestos in some places like CA, WA, South Africa and North Dakota (I think there's also a different mineral with the same effects there).

There was a bit of a pause, then everyone rolled their windows up and on we went. It's naturally occurring, what do you do?
posted by fshgrl at 12:00 AM on September 7, 2012


For US folks, it's also worth noting that the US ban on asbestos was overturned in 1991, leaving most forms of asbestos still legal in the US.

I want to clarify for our foreign friends that this doesn't mean the US is some sort of libertarian hell of asbestosis. The final regulatory situation is generally fairly sensible, with encapsulated and specific industrial forms of asbestos permitted, but new consumer uses banned, and with a generally good oversight regime for removal. Asbestos removal is a demolition specialty and takes place on a regular basis with reasonable precautions for both workers and "civilian" exposure. If anything, there's too much concern from some points of view, because asbestos products that are in good condition and/or encapsulated are generally not a major health risk. Asbestos-related illnesses may not be pleasant, but they are on a somewhat linear curve correlating to the extent of exposure. The odd drive down a dirt road is probably not a concern; a daily drive on the same dirt road, though, is.

The concern is widely familiar and while there may remain limited applications that touch the consumer in some ways, we don't have the ridiculous situation of blown insulation in new homes.
posted by dhartung at 12:43 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've got 2 dozen sturdy double bagged plastic bundles of fibro sheet pieces to take to the tip next week thanks to a bathroom renovation. I wish there was a reputable and reliable place to understand the risks of exposure.
Obviously, we made sure our builder handled it correctly, but my house has plenty of fibro sheeting around and I am between a rock and a hard place - I don't want to replace it all due to the exposure we would get disturbing it (even with the best precautions), but I am reluctant to leave it as things like adding a picture hook or accidentally puncturing a sheet cause micro-exposures. And it would be costly.
The death toll suggests the risk isn't actually that huge, but the health lobby (rightly, I think) plays up that there is no safe level.
So what to do?
posted by bystander at 12:49 AM on September 7, 2012


I live in a home built in 1873. The furnace is an antique, probably installed in the 40s. It's inefficient and should be replaced.

I recently learned that because the thing, and all the ductwork, probably have asbestos parts, we would have to spend far more than we've saved up merely to have the thing properly removed, as special agencies would need to be mobilized. We would thus be unable to afford a replacement.

It's going to be a long, cold winter.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:31 AM on September 7, 2012


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