Arthur Frank, M.D., co-chairman of the science advisory board at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, served as a medical consultant with Toyota in the 1980s when the company opened a new automotive plant in Kentucky.
One of his first suggestions was starting the assembly line with asbestos-free brake pads, setting an example that he expected other automobile manufacturers would follow.
“They said ‘Oh, we can’t do that because those other, ceramic brake pads squeak sometimes, and our sales staff can’t sell the new cars with squeaky brakes,’ ” Frank recalled. “That put an end to the discussion pretty quickly.”
Frank and others engaged in the fight against asbestos spoke over the weekend at the eighth annual International Asbestos Awareness Conference in Los Angeles, California.
The conference was hosted by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a group founded by Linda Reinstein, whose husband died of mesothelioma. Reinstein has made it her mission to speak out for victims and potential victims of asbestos exposure and to make sure the world knows that others are joining the battle as well.
Greed a Reason Why Asbestos Still Unbanned
“People can make money from asbestos,” Frank said. “That’s why it’s still being used. That’s why it’s still coming into this country. Money has come before public health. As hard as we try (to make it disappear), it’s not going away anytime soon. I hope eventually it does — but it’s not likely to happen in our lifetime.”
More than 25 years later, money and greed — and a disregard for human health — still dominate a discussion about asbestos, a frustration that haunts Frank and everyone else who has worked to end the misery that the toxic mineral has caused for generations.
An estimated 10,000 people in the United States die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Although it now is banned in more than 50 countries, the United States is not one of those, still allowing its use.
Experts: Global Asbestos Tragedy Could Emerge
Frank, who is also chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University, is a long-time leader in the fight against the use of asbestos. He received the Irving Selikoff Lifetime Achievement Award at the ADAO conference.
“It’s hard to imagine that 55 countries are smarter than America, but it’s true. They have banned it. We have not,” Frank said. “That says something about our politics, our approach to health and well-being, our world.”
The theme of the conference, “An International Public Health Crisis,” was more than appropriate, judging by the long line of speakers, honorees and advocates that included medical professionals, scientists, researchers, environmentalists and victims of asbestos poisoning.
Attendees at the conference came from nine countries.
The goal was raising awareness and detailing advances being made in limiting exposure to asbestos and the medical treatment of victims. Yet it also was a stark reminder that the battle still being waged in the United States remains only a small part of a much bigger stage.
“It’s a global tragedy that will continue to grow,” said Matt Peacock, journalism professor at the University of Technology in Sydney Australia who has chronicled the asbestos-industry for many years. “It’s not shrinking, it’s growing. Asbestos use in many countries is expanding. It’s easy to say ‘We’re making progress here.’ But you have to look at the global picture.”
Russia, Brazil, India, China and other still-developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa are either increasing their usage or exporting the product to those who are, sacrificing future health for short-term economic gains, following a path that more industrialized countries took a generation before.
“I think we’re beginning to see that if the rest of the world doesn’t wake up, we’ll have a global tragedy on our hands,” said Hedy Kindler, M.D., an ADAO science advisory board member at the Chicago Medical Center. “It’s going to be a horrible problem in these countries in 20 years.”
Although asbestos use in the United States is reduced significantly from a few decades ago, the importation of it has accelerated in each of the past two years, back above the 1,000-ton mark. And no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe.
Asbestos Linked to Other Cancers
Particularly alarming were the recent assertions by both Frank and Michael Harbut, M.D., an occupational specialist at Wayne State University. They said that asbestos exposure is causing cancers beyond just mesothelioma, the disease most tied to asbestos. It is also linked to ovarian cancer, various GI tract cancers, kidney and colon cancers.
“All cancers have an increased risk with an exposure to asbestos,” Harbut said. “If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, you have a risk of an asbestos-related disease.”
Peacock believes that even though the United States has yet to ban asbestos, it will take the leadership of the United States to put a significant dent in the problem from a global perspective.
“If the United States does impose a ban, many other will follow,” Peacock said. “It is still the largest economy in the world, with resources and a global reach that is needed to take the lead in a global tragedy.”
ADAO remains the loudest voice for awareness in this country. Among the topics presented at the conference:
- The need for better enforcement of current regulations.
- Confronting the asbestos-cement industry.
- Novel treatments for mesothelioma.
- Platforms for Asbestos Education, Training and partnership.
- Preventing occupational disease.
As Frank pointed out, even if asbestos were banned today, there would be 25 million tons of it in buildings throughout the United States. And abatement of it all would take generations.
“Right now, there still is so much more work to do,” Frank said.