Asbestos is not a substance generally associated with the lumber industry, but the fact is that danger of asbestos exposure is highest in construction trades. This includes workers whose job it is to saw, plane and cut wood, whether it is at the sawmill or at the construction site. In addition, sawyers in the past could have been involved in cutting and fitting sheets of asbestos wallboard, which in turn would have released substantial amounts of asbestos fibers into the environment.
Industrial uses of asbestos had been regulated in Great Britain as early as 1931. Similar regulations did not exist in the U.S. for decades, although the federal government did issue safety “guidelines” in 1943. These however did not have the force of law, and were basically ignored until the corporate conspiracy to hide the dangers of asbestos, including the possibility of developing mesothelioma or another lung ailment, was exposed in 1977.
Incredibly, asbestos is still legal in the U.S. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to ban the substance in 1989, corporate power ultimately won out over the well-being of people as the U.S. Fifth District Court of Appeals was pressured to overturn the ban in 1991. Recently, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) reintroduced her “Ban Asbestos in America Act” (S. 742). If this passes the Senate in the fall of 2007 with a veto-proof majority (which is the expected outcome), it will restore most of the EPA’s 1989 ban.
Asbestos in Sawmills
In August of 2005, an abandoned sawmill located in Missoula, Montana and owned by Idaho Timber Products, burned to the ground. An analysis of the ash indicated the presence of asbestos.
In Klickitat County, Washington in February of 1998, the state Department of Ecology levied a fine in the amount of $20,300 against a sawmill owner for improperly handling asbestos waste resulting from the demolition of a structure. In this case, asbestos had been used in the sawmill’s powerhouse to insulate thermal system pipes as well as the boilers. According to regulations, the owner had failed to remove asbestos materials from the building site prior to demolition. The materials had become damaged due to weather exposure, necessitating the demolition of the building.
While asbestos in many sawmills and other industrial sites has been either removed or “encapsulated” – covered with a protective coating – the encapsulant used in the Klickitat mill had not been made to withstand the cold temperatures typical of the area during the winter.
These are but two examples of where asbestos has been used in sawmills where lumber is cut and processed.
Different Types of Exposure
Such exposure is known as secondary, because typically, sawyers do not handle asbestos products directly, but suffer because such materials are used in the workplace. Sawyers who were responsible for cutting and fitting asbestos building materials directly experience primary exposure. There is also what is known as non-occupational exposure; this can occur when asbestos dust is carried home on a worker’s clothing or in the hair.