Future dims for Canada's asbestos miners. US Environmental Protection Agency considers complete ban on asbestos; Canadians question data on low-level exposure

Welcome to Asbestos, Quebec, a town on the move. If parts of the town didn't literally keep shuffling along the rolling country here, it would disappear into the ever-widening, open-pit asbestos mine, or be buried under piles of waste rock. The townspeople don't mind occasionally moving City Hall, because asbestos is the reason for Asbestos' existence. Thousands of asbestos miners form the backbone of the local economy. Here, and in nearby towns like Thetford Mines, mine waste rock forms the foundations for roads, new homes, and schools.

But the outlook for the town is cloudy. The material asbestos has been widely condemned in the United States as dangerous, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering banning it completely. Such a move, claim people here, threatens the very existence of their community.

``The ban is based on politics,'' says miner Fernand Trembly through an interpretor. ``People are crazy to be worried about asbestos that is locked in a product.'' Mr. Trembly explained that in his 30 years at the mine the working conditions had improved considerably. ``I can walk through the mine in a dark suit, and you won't see any [asbestos] dust,'' he says with a smile.

David Dull of the EPA views the situation differently. ``There is an enormous amount of evidence available in the scientific literature that shows that asbestos presents a very significant [health] risk . . . both in the workplace and the ambient environment.''

The Asbestos Institute, the focal point of Canada's support of the asbestos industry, agrees on the potential health hazard of uncontrolled asbestos, especially on workers subjected to high and prolonged exposure before current standards were established. Cases of the disease have been documented in studies of textile workers using asbestos fabric, and in wartime shipyard workers who sprayed asbestos as insulation.

It is on the issue of the potential risk from short-term and low-level exposure that the EPA and the Asbestos Institute differ.

The Canadians, and a number of other countries and international organizations, are taking strong measures to control asbestos in the workplace, but are less concerned with exposure in the general environment. Canadian officials claim that there is simply no evidence showing that exposure to low levels of asbestos poses a significant risk. They point out that asbestos is present everywhere in the world environment and that studies conducted on the communities of Asbestos and nearby Thetford Mines indicate no excessive health problems.

The EPA has listened to the Canadians, but US officials remain unconvinced by the merits of their arguments. ``I don't want to suggest that we are indifferent . . . to the concern of the Canadian miners,'' says Mr. Dull, who is deputy director of EPA's Chemical Control Division. ``But our primary duty is to look at the risks presented by asbestos in the US and to make a decision based upon our perception of those risks and whether they can be dealt with at reasonable costs.''

EPA estimates the risk to be 1,000 cancer-related deaths over the next 30 to 40 years if the ban is not implemented. The ban will cost $2 billion, according to the EPA, but American companies that depend on asbestos say the figure will be at least double that amount.

With workplace standards in place and with some question on the health impacts of asbestos substitutes, the Canadians wonder why the US wants to spend $2 million to $4 million ``per life saved'' and destroy an entire industry in the process.

From a public-health viewpoint, says one expert commenting on the proposed US ban, ``more lives and years might be saved by investing in antismoking campaigns, anti-alcohol campaigns, transportation safety, or other public measures.''

Americans know little about asbestos other than its reputation as an extremely dangerous material. Made from the same mineral as beach sand, the name asbestos refers to six different types of mineral fibers found throughout Earth's crust. The term comes from the Greek word meaning unquenched, which was applied to minerals that resisted fire.

Asbestos is used in dozens of products, including cement, floor tile, and automobile brake pads, because it resists wear and tear, high temperatures, corrosive chemicals, and microorganisms.

Dull does say that asbestos ``is a naturally occurring material and some contribution of it to the air and the water is probably from natural sources.'' He also concedes that there are no actual data from human studies that link asbestos at low exposure levels to disease, primarily because such a study would require several hundred thousand people even to begin to document.

Without hard data, EPA has relied on calculations to determine that asbestos added to the environment by mining, or by products containing asbestos, seriously increases the risks to the general population. But Dull says the EPA is looking at new information ``to see whether it still supports the original calculations we put forward.''

The Asbestos Institute is also raising questions on the substances that would replace asbestos, including: cotton, mineral wools, carbon and ceramic fibers, and fiber glass. Their research says not enough is known about substitutes to assert that they are safer than asbestos.

In response, EPA has initiated a major research effort but says the preliminary health information on the substitutes looks much better than the known health risks associated with asbestos. Dull also points out that there are exceptions in the proposed ban that would allow the use of asbestos in certain products if a suitable substitute can not be found.

``If you put experts in a room,'' Dull says, ``they will come out with different conclusions about some of the fine-tuning aspects of risk, . . . which can lead to different arguments about the best regulatory approach that you ought to take. . . . It's a tough problem to decide when to go ahead with the information you have or wait for more studies. In the case of asbestos we think the balance has tipped against it.''

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