Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
Today microscopist Melissa Hartwig says if you think science denial only occurs in difficult topics — check out the people who think asbestos is safe.
In a world where some people even question the shape of the Earth, denying known scientific facts has become almost trendy. It seems that no scientific fact is safe, including the dangers of asbestos. This despite the fact that asbestos has a stronger link to cancer than smoking does, has killed multiple celebrities like Steve McQueen, Paul Gleason, and Donna Summer, and the worst, bottom of the barrel supervillains used it to try and defeat the Human Torch and lost.
Asbestos is a fibrous material naturally occurring in some amphibole and serpentine minerals. Evidence of asbestos use dates back 4,500 years to pots and cooking utensils in Finland, and its toxic effect was noticed in the first century by Pliny the Younger, who saw illness in slaves that worked in mines that contained asbestos. The first asbestos mine in the U.S. opened on Staten Island, New York, in 1858, but it wasn’t until 60 years later the U.S. government acknowledged the high rate of early death in asbestos workers.
This acknowledgement did not dissuade people from using it, primarily in construction as a flame retardant. From the 1930s through the 1980s, asbestos use increased, and with it the evidence of its negative effects. The link between asbestos and cancer, the first cases of asbestosis, and the direct link to mesothelioma were discovered during this time, but were largely ignored by industry, the government, and the populace at large.
Asbestos was used as the snow that falls on the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz, and more disturbingly as spray snow in people’s homes, as a punchline in television shows, commercials, and movies, and as fabric for fire retardant curtains and racing suits. Eventually, multiple personal injury lawsuits forced regulations, but many still refused to accept the truth. And that refusal persists even today, in politics, the asbestos industry (yes, it still exists), the abatement industry, and even in modern pop culture, like in the game Fallout 4, where it’s used as a resource.
While more prevalent in older generations, these beliefs trickle down to younger workers whose lack of cultural exposure to the dangers of asbestos leaves them quick to question rules and regulations. As someone who works in asbestos abatement, I was once told by a person who collects samples that asbestos danger is just another hoax perpetrated by the government to regulate the industry and make money.
The belief is encouraged by some people in power, like former president Donald Trump. In 1997 in his book The Art of the Comeback, Trump made the claim that asbestos is safe and got a “bad rap” because of mob involvement with abatement work, and in 2012 he restated a previous claim that the Twin Towers would not have collapsed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks had the asbestos not been removed.
Like with climate change denial, denial of the dangers of asbestos seems to be motivated by politics and money. Asbestos is banned in 67 countries; the U.S. is not one of them. While the last asbestos mine in the U.S. closed in 2002 and Canada’s last in 2011, the United States imports hundreds of tons of asbestos every year. An attempt at a phase out and ban of asbestos failed in 1991 due to lobbying pressure from the asbestos industry, causing the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the legislation. This was eventually followed by the FAIR and FACT Acts, which would have made asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits all but impossible.
For President Trump, asbestos danger denial was for both financial and political gain. The majority of the buildings he owns were built using asbestos, and the testing and abatement costs for any renovations or retrofitting of things such as sprinkler systems would cost him a fortune. Trump’s promotion of asbestos was seen by some as another link between the president and Russia, where images of Trump were printed on asbestos packaging. With the recent Brazillian ban on the mining and sale of asbestos, the source of 95% of U.S. asbestos importation, the supply gap could be filled by Russia, and bolstered further with a reintroduction of asbestos into new construction materials.
So it was of little surprise when, in June of 2018, already shaky EPA regulations were changed to allow “case-by-case” evaluation of asbestos use. These changes led to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization filing a lawsuit, which echoed the EPA’s own independent Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals that the EPA’s 2020 asbestos risk assessment was less than adequate. It failed to address legacy asbestos exposure, overlooked sources of exposure and risk, and understated the disease and death tolls. In December 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Chen ruled that “EPA has unlawfully failed to use its [Toxic Substances Control Act] authority to obtain basic information on asbestos use and exposure needed for a sound risk evaluation.”
Whether for political or financial gain, science denial never serves the general populace. Each year 40,000 people die from hazards associated with asbestos exposure, it is the leading cause of mesothelioma and the only cause of asbestosis, and is associated with a number of other deadly diseases. Even superhumans aren’t immune to its effects — Asbestos Lady succumbed to mesothelioma, and Asbestos Man became so weak from cancer that he was taken out by a hazmat team.
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