Asbestos common in buildings constructed shortly after World War II

By Thomas Wilson

   Many buildings constructed after World War II, including the old Carter County Memorial Hospital, contained material made of asbestos. Then, health officials connected exposure to asbestos with high rates of lung cancer.
   "Asbestos" is a generic name given to a fibrous variety of six naturally occurring minerals used for decades in the development of thousands of commercial products. When the Carter County Memorial Hospital was opened in August 1959, asbestos was an accepted ingredient used in building and insulation materials.
   Elizabethton city government will soon know the scope of asbestos-containing materials inside the hospital as it takes the first step in demolishing the hospital building. City Council voted last week to have a private engineering firm perform a survey of asbestos material in the hospital.
   The term "asbestos" is really a commercial name given to a group of minerals that possess high tensile strength, flexibility, resistance to chemical and thermal degradation, and electrical resistance.
   The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets limits for acceptable levels of asbestos exposure in the workplace. People who work with asbestos wear personal protective equipment to lower their risk of exposure and developing an asbestos-related illness. Health officials began linking asbestos exposure to increased rates of lung cancer among a cross section of workers exposed to materials containing the fiber.
   Workers who inhale asbestos can develop serious lung and other diseases that may not appear until years after exposure occurred. For instance, asbestos can cause a buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs and result in loss of lung function that often progresses to disability and death, according to OSHA. Asbestos fibers associated with these health risks are too small to be seen with the naked eye, and smokers are at higher risk of developing some asbestos-related diseases.
   On July 12, 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. However, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned the ruling two years later. The ruling vacated many regulatory bans placed on asbestos use in buildings.
   As a result of the Court's decision, some asbestos-containing products remain banned including flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper. In addition, the regulation continues to ban the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as "new uses" of asbestos.
   Despite the court ruling, asbestos use remains heavily regulated by OSHA and its use has diminished considerably. About 6,800 metric tons of asbestos was consumed in the United States in 2002, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
   Shipments of asbestos declined to 3,000 tons in 2002 from 5,000 tons in 2001.
   Imports and exports declined by 31 percent and 64 percent, respectively, from those of 2001. Estimated consumption decreased by 31 percent to 9,000 tons in 2002.
   The use of asbestos material greatly increased during World War II. Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have had exposure to asbestos fibers.
   Initially, the risks associated with asbestos exposure were not known.
   The asbestos industry has all but evaporated in the United States since the 1970s. Concerns over health risks posed by high exposures to airborne asbestos brought on much of the decline of asbestos use. From the 1970s onward, public pressure to reduce exposure to asbestos resulted in lowered exposure standards and spurred the quest for alternatives. Many companies ceased production of asbestos products because of liability issues. Commercial products such as asbestos-containing insulations, plasters, ceiling tiles, cement products, and caulks were slowly phased out. As a result, asbestos consumption in the United States declined rapidly.
   Efforts to ban asbestos altogether continue. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., sponsored legislation in the U.S. Senate in June 2002 to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act prohibiting asbestos-containing materials from being used in the United States.
   Asbestos has been identified in 20 states and mined in 17 states over the past 100 years, according to USGS. It is found in many common rocks. Major asbestos-bearing deposits occur in the mountain belts in the Eastern and Western United States including a high concentration in western North Carolina near the Tennessee border, according to the USGS.
   General industry employees can be exposed to asbestos during the manufacture of asbestos-containing products or when performing brake and clutch repairs. In the construction industry, exposure occurs when workers disturb asbestos-containing materials during the renovation or demolition of buildings.