Most Americans believe that asbestos is a relic of the past; a now-banned substance that no longer exists in new products. Unfortunately, this isn't entirely true. The United States banned the use of asbestos in most products decades ago, and use of the material has dropped sharply since the late 1980s. But certain asbestos products remain legal, and some 400 metric tons of it were used in 2014.
Moreover, Americans continue to be exposed to asbestos from old sources. According to some experts, the U.S. is now its "third wave" of exposure, which we'll discuss in today's post.
The "waves" of exposure closely follow the use of asbestos in the United States. The first wave primarily affected asbestos miners and those who worked in manufacturing and milling processes involving asbestos. The next wave afflicted individuals who worked with and installed asbestos products: Shipbuilders, construction workers and insulation specialists.
The third wave is now affecting individuals exposed to asbestos in existing infrastructure. This includes contractors doing demolition and renovation work. But it also includes telecommunications workers, who often install and remove wiring in asbestos-laden conduit pipes.
The Center For Public Integrity recently profiled one such worker. He is a 39-year-old man named Kris. In the fall of 2014, he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the abdomen. His exposure to asbestos occurred about a decade ago when he was installing fiber optic cable for AT&T. The pipe that housed the cable was made of asbestos cement.
In recent years, companies like Verizon have also been accused of exposing workers to asbestos-laden materials on the job.
Although asbestos use is now a tiny fraction of what it once was, the threat of exposure remains high. And as America's infrastructure continues to be demolished and replaced, the third wave of asbestos-related diseases may just be getting started.