Despite extensive awareness and evidence of the dangers of working with asbestos, it continues to feature in domestic and international decision making. The ramifications of its use are felt at an individual level in the experiences of people with asbestos related diseases, as well as within organisations including trade unions, charities and employers as they negotiate blame, liability and compensation. With over 5000 deaths caused by asbestos in the UK each year, and approximately 40,000 in the USA, decisions relating to the use of asbestos can be interpreted as decisions on the value of workers (and their families’) health relative to the value of profit. In this respect, in a context of diminishing job quality and increasing health inequalities across the global north, the use of asbestos can be considered a prime exemplar of occupational class war.
It is a naturally occurring mineral substance that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency*. The fibres are soft and flexible, but also resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion. It makes an effective insulator and can be mixed into cloth, cement, plastic and paper amongst other materials to make them stronger. Historically it has been considered a miracle mineral – as it is almost impossible to set on fire, is in abundant supply, cheap to mine, and easy to manufacture into a variety of products. However, it is also carcinogenic. According to the World Health Organisation “all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis.” Over 80% of mesothelioma cases, a type of cancer that develops from the thin layer of tissue that covers internal organs (known as the mesothelium) are caused by exposure to asbestos. The most common area affected is the lining of the lungs and chest wall.
Exposure and the onset of cancer are generally separated by about 40 years, meaning that people who worked with the substance in the ‘70s and ‘80s are only now becoming symptomatic and getting diagnosed. In the context of an individual’s working biography, they are likely to start experiencing symptoms long after they worked with the substance, and often as they enter retirement. Symptoms include chest pain caused by accumulating fluid, shortness of breath, tiredness (fatigue), sweating and high temperatures, a persistent cough, losing weight when not dieting, loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing and/or a hoarse or husky voice. The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is less than two years from diagnosis. Approximately 40% of patients live one year, while less than 10% live five years. The UK has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world, largely because incumbent governments permitted the use of asbestos long after other countries outlawed its use.
Why occupational class war? Consider the evidence. It is well known that men working in shipbuilding (and construction more generally) were exposed to asbestos. Asbestos products were used for insulation on vessels including those used in the British Armed Forces. Less is known about the other working groups being diagnosed with the disease. This number includes women working on switchboards connecting calls. The wooden boards they plugged and unplugged wires from could be backed with asbestos, each line they put through releasing asbestos fibres into the air. Asbestos was also widely used in factories, chemical plants, power plants, refineries, commercial buildings and homes and schools in the UK – it was even used in products such as hair dryers. Despite scientific findings from as early as the 1920s and 1930s suggesting that it caused serious respiratory illnesses in individuals exposed to airborne asbestos fibres, legislation banning the use of asbestos in the UK was limited and incremental; The UK’s Control of Asbestos Regulations Act (2006) combined previous legislation into one single law that prohibited the use, supply and importation of all asbestos. This law was again updated in 2012, to take account of the European Commission’s view that the UK had not fully implemented the EU Directive on exposure to asbestos.
The use of asbestos has contemporary geopolitical implications. Russian asbestos giant Uralasbest put a picture of President Donald Trump on its asbestos products. It then posted photos of bales of asbestos on social media with the caption, “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States.” On the 1stof June, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted the Significant New Use Rule. This allows the US government to evaluate asbestos use on a case by case basis. Almost simultaneously the EPA released a new framework for how it evaluates chemical risk. Their evaluations no longer include the potential effects of exposure to chemicals in the air, ground or water. It is as ludicrous as it sounds. The new framework means that the EPA can circumvent Obama-era legislation requiring the evaluation of hundreds of potentially dangerous chemicals. Asbestos is among the first group of chemicals the EPA will examine. The timing of this is as best deeply suspect. The United States no longer mines or manufactures asbestos, and Brazil which had been the source of about 95% of all asbestos used in America has banned its manufacture and sale. Since then, Russia has become a primary supplier of the mineral.
Permitting the use of asbestos corresponds with wider occupational health inequalities. The policy makers that allow the use of asbestos, and those individuals who buy it cheaply for construction, despite the dangers it represents, are not those expected to handle it. They are not the people heading home with the fibres in their lungs or on their clothing. They are not the people hoping to enjoy retirement when they notice a persistent cough, pain or breathlessness. Diseases caused by asbestos will be experienced by workers at the bottom of the labour chain; in the US, likely to be immigrant construction workers. Under the Trump administration there is more than one wall that we should be concerned about.
* Asbestos is not a single type of mineral — it refers to a group of silicate minerals that share the same fibrous nature