History Of Asbestos Health Effects

Long Documented History of Asbestos Diseases in Exposed Workers

In the early 1900s, Dr. Hubert Montague Murray at the Charing Cross Hospital in London reported on lung disease in an asbestos textile worker. An autopsy confirmed the presence of asbestos fibers in the worker's lungs.

It was not until 1924, however, that the first case of asbestosis was reported in a medical journal. Dr. W.E. Cooke performed an autopsy on a woman who had worked in an asbestos textile factory for 17 years and died at the age of 33. The examination showed the lung scarring that is associated with the disease. Within the next few years, several studies revealed that asbestos workers were dying of lung ailments at young ages.

Documents from the 1930s and 1940s reveal that many asbestos manufacturers were aware of the serious health issues surrounding asbestos, but kept the information secret from workers and from the public (Paul Brodeur's "The Cruel Saga of Asbestos Disease").

During the 1960s, evidence emerged indicating that asbestos fibers posed a dangerous medical risk. Dr. Irving Selikoff of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City studied the health and mortality of asbestos insulation workers. He found alarming rates of lung cancer and asbestosis. The study also confirmed the high rate of premature death among the insulation workers.

Asbestos Regulatory History

In response to the mounting evidence linking asbestos exposure to respiratory disease, the United States federal government began to regulate asbestos in the 1970s through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Over the years, the standards have become stricter. For example, in 1971, the first permissible exposure limit (PEL) for asbestos under OSHA rules was 12 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc) within an 8-hour period. Later that year, the PEL was reduced to 5 f/cc and by 1986, it was reduced to 0.2f/cc. Specific provisions were added to the construction industry standard in 1986 to cover hazards relating to asbestos abatement and demolition jobs, which had now become common.

Today, the PEL under both OSHA and the EPA is 0.1 f/cc for asbestos work in all industries, including construction, shipyards, and asbestos abatement. OSHA adds, however, that the asbestos PEL is a target guideline for regulatory purposes only, that it does not establish any level of "safe" exposure, and that there is still a significant health risk to workers involved with asbestos. The agency also mandates various work procedures to limit asbestos exposure such as HEPA filters, special ventilation systems, glove bags, protective clothing, and respirators. See Asbestos Worker Safety for more details about procedures and safety precautions.