The finding, of eight large plastic trash bags identified only as “hazardous waste” alongside Hess Road in Washington County, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, April 14, led to a 911 call and to the eventual discovery that the bags had been transported by Somerset Township.
Once the unidentified woman made her 911 call, county workers responded and discovered the asbestos. The problem was then passed on to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, or PennDOT, which regulates the transport of hazardous waste like asbestos on the state’s roads.
According to PennDOT’s Deputy Director of Safety in Washington County, the asbestos is a class nine material in PennDOT’s list of ORMs, or Other Regulated Material.
Once the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, was brought into the loop, the bags – which had already been tied off under DEP auspices – were removed from the Bentleyville Road site.
The DEP has so far failed to identify the company that originally disposed of the asbestos, or the one that came across it. All that is known is that asbestos, a silica-type mineral widely used during most of the 20th century in everything from insulative products to building materials (and in automotive products like brake linings and clutch facings), is the leading cause of asbestosis and mesothelioma.
This link, between asbestos and disease, began in 1924 with the first medical article published in a reputable medical journal, the British Medical Journal. The article outlined the dangers of asbestos dust, and forced the British government to institute dust control regulations in asbestos-related manufacturing, which were viewed as adequate until the 1960s.
Similar timelines took place all over the world, with asbestos – once considered a “wondrous” mineral, useful in all kinds of high-heat, chemical exposure situations – being recognized by the 1970s in the United States as a significant threat to the health and safety of American workers, and to the American military as well.
Asbestosis is rarely lethal in and of itself, though it can weaken sufferers, who increasingly struggle to breathe just like patients with asthma, chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
Mesothelioma, on the other hand, is almost always fatal, trading off a long dormancy period – sometimes up to five decades – for a rapid progression of tumors and a prognosis, at the time of diagnosis, of about a year to live.
Use of asbestos was finally limited, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to one percent or less of domestically manufactured product (by weight or volume). Unfortunately, the limitation does not apply across the board because of the financial strength of the asbestos lobby, and in 2007-2008, asbestos imports to the U.S. actually increased by more than 1,880 tons.
This asbestos is still used in joint compounds and some construction materials, though most original equipment manufacturers in the automobile industry have jointly agreed not to use it because of the hazards. Nonetheless, imported automobile parts like brake pads, from countries where asbestos is not banned (like India) can contain seriously dangerous amounts of asbestos.
Dumping bags of asbestos by the side of rural roads is perhaps explained by the cost of dumping hazardous materials in dedicated landfills. Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania DEP will likely fine the culprit heavily to deter similar behavior in the future.
Sources: The Pittsburgh Channel, British Medical Journal, Enviroblog, Military.com