The Reality of American Asbestos Use

Although the mining and exportation of asbestos is banned in the United States, our consumption of the mineral is steady as we continue to mill, manufacture, and fabricate asbestos on a daily basis. Despite the premature death of thousands of people each year from asbestos exposure, the asbestos industry in the United States and hundreds of other countries around the world continues to thrive. Russia, China, and India are the world’s largest consumers of asbestos, and Russia, China and Brazil are the top three producers. The initial National Emission Standards for Hazardous Pollutants (NESHAP) Act was proposed to U.S. government in 1973 and revised a number of times since. These revisions allow companies to continue manufacturing of asbestos-containing products. Who are the firms that own these plants and how are they getting away with such blatant threats to public health? A recent EPA report helps shed some light on our status in the asbestos industry.

Asbestos exposure attorneys remind the public that, if all asbestos-containing products were banned in the United States, global demand would decrease. Though the U.S. is not a significant consumer of the mineral, any amount of demand sends the wrong message.

The asbestos industry is organized in the following manner. First, asbestos ore is mined and then milled to achieve a homogeneous, graded input, which is shipped to primary industries. These primary industries then process and modify the raw asbestos fiber to produce an intermediate or finished product. Secondary industries may then be required to complete the final processing of the product into a finished good. This finished good or product is then sold to consumer industries which then apply, install, erect, or consume the product without further modification. All of these operations have the potential for releasing asbestos fibers to the atmosphere.

Although it is certainly true that many asbestos-containing products have few or poor substitutes, it is also true that the products that account for the bulk of fiber use in the United States face competitive markets.

For some asbestos products however, the demand will be more inelastic, particularly in the area of gasketing materials, where few substitutes are available. Friction materials often have been cited as products with very poor asbestos-substitution possibilities, but this may no longer be the case for all friction materials. Clearly, continuing research and development in the industry is aimed at replacing asbestos containing products with substitutes that function in a suitable fashion. As progress is made in these efforts, further downward pressure on overall asbestos consumption might be expected in the United States.

Asbestos products manufacturing plants tend to be highly specialized. Nearly all the large plants–those with more than 100 employees–belong to the major firms within the industry. These facilities also produce minor amounts of non-asbestos products. In particular, paper plants incorporate both asbestos and non-asbestos production. The small manufacturer’s typical plant tends to be a single-product operation serving a specific industry within a restricted geographical region.

The manufacture of asbestos-cement pipe and asbestos cement sheet required large, capital-intensive plants. Paper products and friction materials plants are often much smaller. Friction materials plants may employ fewer than a dozen workers. Paper plants operating with only one machine employ as few as 50 workers.

Over 100 patents currently control the manufacture of asbestos products. Most recently, patents have been issued for control technologies to reduce worker exposure to asbestos dust. According to executives of asbestos manufacturing firms, little research and development within the industry currently is directed toward new manufacturing processes or new applications of asbestos products. This, to some extent, is in response to asbestos litigation that effectively discourages further involvement with asbestos and, therefore, any further asbestos product innovation or development. Hence, the potential for technical innovation in the production processes or for the use of asbestos manufactures in new applications is minimal. Consequently, research and development efforts by asbestos manufacturers are directed instead toward developing substitute materials and products comparable in cost effectiveness to asbestos manufacturers. The Asbestos Institute does, however, sponsor research in new uses of asbestos.

Within the manufacturing sectors, workers in the asbestos-cement and asbestos papers industries are primarily semiskilled, and workers in the friction materials sector are less skilled. Manufacturers hire unskilled workers and train them to handle the asbestos manufacturing machines. Most workers in the asbestos industry are union members, primarily represented by the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, and the Papermakers’ Union.

Lung cancer lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm urge anyone associated with the asbestos industry to practice extreme caution. If you were exposed and developed an illness, contact our firm immediately to discuss your legal rights at no cost.

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