Another week, another slate of asbestos-related stories. Despite having been banned for 20 years now, asbestos seems to be cropping up in the news more than ever. From cases of sudden and debilitating illness to asbestos being improperly disposed of, it doesn’t seem like this deadly substance is going away anytime soon.
The latest cases relate to a variety of products that apparently contain (or contained) asbestos. Given that asbestos is still legal to produce or use in over 100 countries, can we be sure that the substance isn’t making it into goods we use every day, and are worries about the effects of asbestos in products justified?
Drink ‘til You Drop
The concept of asbestos polluting consumer goods is far from alien. Back when asbestos was considered a ‘miracle material’ - due largely to its heat and electrical resistance - hundreds of products advertised themselves as containing asbestos. Asbestos toothpaste was supposed to give you a whiter smile, asbestos insoles would help support your feet, and asbestos cigarette filters would give you a smoother taste. There was even asbestos snow, which purported to be more realistic than the alternatives, and wouldn’t catch light around Christmas candles.
While most of these unusual uses for asbestos fell out of fashion by the 1960s, asbestos continued to be used in many popular products. Asbestos was commonly found in hairdryers, ironing boards and other appliances which heated up, as well as car brake pads, lab equipment, ashtrays and more. The legacy of these products continues to make itself known, with one case recently of a man who contracted mesothelioma as a hairdresser, due to cleaning and repairing hair dryers over the decades.
Even when the dangers of asbestos were better publicized, however, the substance still made its way into popular products. While brown and blue asbestos were banned at a fairly early stage, it was believed for many decades that white asbestos was relatively harmless. The substance was still used to filter beer right up until the 1980s, and some bar owners would reportedly throw handfuls of asbestos into leftover beer to ‘clean’ it for the following day. While there is no conclusive evidence, some believe that the use of asbestos in beer production is directly linked to a spike in esophageal cancer cases.
The presence of asbestos in modern consumer products has perhaps been a more visible issue in the United States than the UK. The most high profile case is that of Johnson & Johnson, who were recently embroiled in a lengthy case over the safety of their best-selling baby powder. The company was sued by numerous people who claimed that asbestos-contaminated talc was used in the powder for decades, and that it had contributed to many cases of cancer, chiefly the development of ovarian cancer.
Johnson & Johnson have so far paid almost $4.7 billion in settlements over these lawsuits, with tests and written evidence proving that the products not only did contain harmful levels of asbestos, but that the company was aware of the issue. While J&J have contested both the presence of asbestos and its role in causing those instances of cancer, the FDA has subsequently found asbestos in a brand new batch of the product, which the company has voluntarily recalled.
This is far from the only case of asbestos appearing in modern consumer products, however. Cosmetics frequently use talc too, and depending on where it’s sourced from and the rigorousness of the testing, they are also prone to contamination. Kids’ store Claire’s opted to recall a number of products due to asbestos contamination, though not until some months after US authorities flagged up issues with several of their products. Fellow tween chain Justice also recalled seven of its products after a newspaper investigation paid for private testing.
So what is the present danger of asbestos in our products today?
The use or production of asbestos has been banned in the UK for 20 years; by law, no products should be allowed to contain asbestos, regardless of where they have been produced. Many alternatives to asbestos for fire resistance and electrical insulation have been produced, and accidental contamination with asbestos is rare. However, this does not mean that there is no reason to be vigilant about the substance.
As recent cases in the United States prove, asbestos remains an issue where testing and regulation are not in step with companies and demand. Asbestos continues to be used legally in the U.S. in an industrial capacity, simply because the viable alternatives are slightly more expensive. Its presence in makeup and talcum powder meanwhile point to insufficient testing on the part of companies, poor practices in terms of mining or processing, and the relative powerlessness of the authorities to enforce their own standards and recalls.
Just as many products make their way into the UK via eBay or Amazon that break EU safety standards, so products contaminated with asbestos can slip through the cracks. And none of this is to mention the continuing legacy of asbestos products in the UK, which linger in attics, landfill, charity shops, old brownfield sites and more. If nothing else, the stories about asbestos contaminated products reflect the need for vigilance over this age-old problem - and the continuing need for regulation to punish unscrupulous traders.
Lee Sadd is an operations and training director at health & safety consultancy SAMS Ltd. SAMS is a provider of online asbestos courses, and offers a range of classroom courses, business advisory services and event management solutions.