Asbestos Cement Products Linked to High Worker Exposure Risks: Study

Researchers are calling for a total ban on asbestos products around the world, indicating techniques designed to keep workers safe often do not work.

Some cement products, such as roofing, exterior siding and water tanks, expose workers to unsafe levels of asbestos, which exceed safety limits established by federal regulators, according to the findings of a new study.

In a report recently published in the medical journal Annals of Work Exposures and Health, researchers warn that the levels of airborne asbestos released during installation of a variety of cement products used in building and industry can result in high levels of occupational exposure, which can lead to the development of serious and life-threatening diseases, such mesothelioma.

Asbestos cement is a building material consisting of cement and white chrysotile asbestos fibers. It can be molded into any shape, making it versatile in construction. It is commonly used in water pipes, roofing, exterior siding, water tanks, cooling towers and other applications.

Most asbestos uses were banned in the U.S. in 1989, but it is still allowed in a limited number of commercial products. The global market for asbestos cement is shrinking due to the health concerns, but more than 90% of the global asbestos use still comes from asbestos cement products, such as pipes, siding, and roofing.

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Workers Face Unsafe Asbestos Exposure Levels

In this latest study, researchers from Occupational Knowledge International reviewed published studies on airborne asbestos exposures during the installation, cutting and removal of asbestos cement pipes, roofing, sheets, cooling tower components and other common workplace exposures.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) asbestos exposure regulations call for airborne asbestos concentrations not to exceed 0.1 fiber f/cm3. However, the data indicates cutting asbestos cement pipes releases 50 times OSHA’s safety limits, ranging from 11.3 to 129 fibers per cubic centimeters (f/cm3), with an average exposure of 53.8 f/cm3.

Cutting flat boards and corrugated roofing with asbestos cement sheets resulted in exposures ranging from 1.3 to 130 f/cm3, with an average exposure of 24 f/cm3; which is 24 times higher than OSHA safety limits.

According to the findings, 100% of workers who cut asbestos cement pipe were exposed to levels of asbestos higher than U.S. short-term safety limits. In addition, more than 86% of workers who used power saws to cut asbestos cement sheets were exposed to asbestos levels that also exceeded those limits.

Asbestos Mesothelioma Risks

The researchers determined that intermittent workplace exposures from asbestos cement products are linked to an increased risk of asbestos-related disease, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Mesothelioma is a rare and deadly type of cancer, which is only known to be caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. Data indicates there were more than 45,000 deaths from mesothelioma from 1999 to 2015. The condition is nearly always fatal, since it is often diagnosed at an advanced stage and there is no cure.

While the asbestos industry has long maintained their products can be safely used in the workplace, the researchers found that using water to reduce airborne exposure to fibers, a technique often employed, does not sufficiently protect workers involved in most cutting tasks.

Researchers Call for Complete Asbestos Ban

The researchers emphasized a need for all asbestos cement products to be banned in the U.S. and around the world. So far, only 60 countries banned asbestos use, but many low and middle-income countries, and the U.S., still use the toxic substance.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stopped short of a total ban in 1989, calling on companies to notify the agency when they plan to manufacture or import asbestos cement products. However, The agency is now considering a ban on chrysotile asbestos,  the last form of legal asbestos in the U.S.

Asbestos lawsuits have been filed by more than 600,000 people against approximately 6,000 defendants, all raising similar allegations that manufacturers and sellers of products containing asbestos knew about the risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos injuries, yet failed to provide adequate warnings.

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