Following Asbestos Ban, What Is Next for Workers and Families? – Podcast

From asbestos to wildfire haze and the Ohio train derailment, the latest Standards Impact podcast discusses a wide range of hazards affecting air quality.
JP Ervin

Asbestos was banned by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling on March 18, 2024. Focused on chrysotile asbestos, the only known form of asbestos still used or imported in the U.S., the ruling follows decades of research and standardization around the affects of this substance on health.

Soon after the ruling, ASTM International's podcast Standards Impact explored air quality hazards like asbestos. On the new episode, I spoke to ASTM International members Frank Ehrenfeld of International Asbestos Testing Laboratories and Tom Laubenthal, owner of TGL Consulting, about air quality. During our conversation, the two members of ASTM's committee on air quality (D22) spoke about a range of concerns, from wildfire haze to the Ohio train derailment chemical spill and beyond. Both Ehrenfeld and Laubenthal are experts on asbestos, so we especially focused on that substance and the new ruling. They talked about how there is still more work to be done after the ban and what role standards can play in the continued fight for cleaner air.

Read an excerpt from our discussion below or listen to the full episode.


The Legacy of Asbestos

JP Ervin: You both are specialists in asbestos. That’s an interesting case study. It’s an example of public education. The substance is a household name in the US in particular. But my grandfather left the military after the Korean War, and he hopped into working into an asbestos brake factory, living the American dream. So it's something that's really transformed in public awareness in a relatively short time, I would say. Why is asbestos so significant? What attracted you both to that work in that area?

Frank Ehrenfeld: I'm sort of the second generation in my family that has been involved with this issue. My father Frank Ehrenfeld Jr. spent a career working for some of the largest flooring manufacturing companies in the world in a similar position as mine. He was a laboratory director and a technical manager, had several patents about, among other things, how to formulate asbestos into these products. It was a commodity. Everybody wanted to have asbestos in their products. You could sell it for more because of its various properties of, of strength, durability, fireproofing, insulation, et cetera. Now here I am years later. I got involved after college in the early days of laboratory science that is associated with asbestos testing. And I have been doing this now for over 35 years. It's amazing how it has just about come full circle.

If you talk to anybody on the street today, I think they would say, “Asbestos? Is that still around? Isn't that a thing of the past? We don't have to worry about that anymore.” You don't hear about it unless you're up at 3:00 a.m., listening to late night TV and hearing legal advertisements about mesothelioma. It still is a concern in this country. In the rest of the world it's even more of an issue, because this is not just limited to industrialized countries.

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We've done a good job of putting things in place, laws, statutes, codes, standards. There's been litigation to limit what manufacturers put in their product, et cetera. The disease rate is falling rapidly in the United States. We've done a great job. The rest of the world is catching on and doing the same thing, but it's going to be a long road. And we hope we have the tools ready for the rest of the world to be able to help control and manage this legacy issue. Tom, can you tell me what legacy asbestos is?

Tom Laubenthal: Legacy asbestos is the materials that have been installed in buildings over generations. As a matter of fact, the EPA just this week announced a ban on a type of asbestos we call chrysotile. Everybody thought, “Well, this is great. It will be a ban and we won't have to deal with this anymore.” No, no, no, no. That has to do with current uses,  what we import or use in very limited ways in this country. The legacy issue is the big one. Think about a coal fired power plant or a paper mill. You have miles – not feet – miles of insulated pipe. Office buildings that may have fireproofing above ceiling tiles. You don't see it. It’s not about you, it's about the maintenance people that have to go above those ceiling tiles.

We have no earthly idea what the extent of this is. It is going to be with us for a long time.Young people that would come through my classroom when I was on the teaching side would ask me, “Does this career have legs?” They were asking about longevity with getting involved with this issue. And I said, “My friends, your grandchildren might be working with asbestos.” We have a long road to ever get rid of all this stuff out of buildings.”

Ervin: Frank, I’m  glad you mentioned the global aspect. I've also seen this with some of ASTM’s involvement with lead paint. That's another issue that I think there's a lot of public awareness about and people kind of treat that one too as something that's just gone. But with asbestos and lead paint, there’s actually a ramp up in a lot of developing countries that are trying to catch up. I was curious if you had thoughts about the global context and if ASTM is working to address these issues.

Ehrenfeld: Cut me off if I go too far on this, because the answer is “in spades.” I have personally visited old asbestos mines and asbestos laden rail tracks throughout South Africa with a large project there. They're using ASTM analytical methods to  help remedy and solve some of the gross contamination  that emanated from the geological source mines. I visited and spent weeks in Australia and New Zealand running workshops. They have evolved some of their analytical methods and the way the different states in Australia have mandated analytical testing, some of which are citing ASTM methods. They realize that these are valuable tools that will help them evaluate environmental and occupational conditions.

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Italy is doing a superb job. They have mimicked some of what we have produced. We have an ASTM conference coming up in Philadelphia in a couple weeks, as a matter of fact. And we will have a number of countries represented there so we can learn from each other.  It's a shared type of global cooperation. They have come up with some really good ideas as well. We're working together more and more. A great example of ASTM being called - we received a notification from both the World Health Organization and the World Bank looking asbestos and cement products. We've gone a long way towards that. It's not quite finished yet, but we are being looked at globally as a producer of solutions, not just a producer of standards. It's been great to work on the international side and help solve problems like that.

Laubenthal: Further, we can look at a comparison with health effects. As an example, let's start with asbestos. Lung scarring – we call asbestosis. That is dropping off precipitously. It's a very common misconception that the public has, that if they think they're exposed, they are going to have some sort of health effect immediately. It doesn't work like that. It's usually years. What's happened is that's going down because we started banning the use of asbestos in manufacturing, requiring OSHA regulations where we have to measure the air and have people wear respiratory protection, and things. ASTM standards have been part of all of that all along.

Listen to the full episode on Buzzsprout or wherever you get your podcasts.

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