Since ancient times, people have widely regarded asbestos as one of nature’s miracles—an inexpensive, incombustible and almost indestructible material. But a
series of medical studies begun in the 1950s showed that exposure at levels then common in the workplace caused a variety of diseases, including a respiratory illness called asbestosis.
As concern mounted over the risk, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in July, 1989, that the use of nearly all products containing asbestos—from pipes to brake linings for vehicles—would be banned after August, 1996. But in September, 1989, Canadian asbestos mining and manufacturing companies, as well as the Asbestos Institute, a Montreal-based group affiliated with the industry, announced their decision to file petitions for review of the ban with the U.S. federal court of appeal. The petitioners received support from both the federal government and the government of Quebec, whose mines make the province the second-largest asbestos producer in the world after the Soviet Union. And on Oct. 18, a U.S. federal appeals court in New Orleans struck down part of the ban, declaring that the EPA had not provided enough evidence to support it.
Industry and government officials in Quebec promptly declared that the decision could help to revive the province’s flagging asbestos industry. Said Claude Dugas, a spokesman for the Asbestos Institute: “When people first discovered that asbestos could be dangerous for health, it created a phobia. That caused the producers to see the amount of asbestos sold cut by half over the past 10 years.” A decade ago, the asbestos industry, centred largely in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, employed as many as 10,000 workers. But as production declined to 680,000 tons last year from 1.2 million tons a decade ago, only about 2,500 people continue to work in the $430-million-ayear industry.
Although the court lifted the ban on so-called hard prodm s, including pipes in which asbestos is solidly encapsulated, it maintained the prohibition on any new uses of asbestos, as well as on such imported asbestos products as roofing, flooring and tiling. Few experts on either side of the issue seriously dispute the fact that exposure to asbestos can pose a serious health hazard. As well as asbestosis, which causes a potentially fatal scarring and shrinking of the lungs, medical researchers have linked exposure to asbestos with cancer of the lungs, throat and digestive tract.
Where supporters and opponents of asbestos differ is over the question of whether the material can, under some circumstances, be used safely. Industry officials say that chrysotile asbestos, mainly produced in Canada, does not pose a risk to health if it is contained properly and does not get into the air. But environmentalists and some members of the medical community reject that argument, claiming that there is an abundance of evidence about the dangers of exposure to chrysotile asbestos, even in small amounts.
In the meantime, EPA officials said last week that they had not decided whether to appeal the court’s decision. For their part, industry officials say that while the ruling may mean some increase in business for asbestos companies, it will be difficult to completely recover the ground lost during the past decade—and win back the public’s confidence.
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