Asbestos confusion exposing millions
Search for asbestos in Crayons finds government detection methods obsolete
By Andrew Schneider, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 2001
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- Millions of Americans could be at risk of asbestos-related disease because the government's methods for detecting the deadly fiber are inconsistent and obsolete, leading environmental scientists say in a new report.
Motivated by questions from Crayola and various government agencies, the Research Triangle Institute analyzed crayons as well as the analysis of crayons done by labs around the country. Their report confirms the presence of small amounts of asbestos in Crayola crayons bought last year, as well as significant, larger quantities of other asbestos-like fibers.
Michael Beard, principal investigator for the 10-month study, said it also shows government standards must be updated to accurately reflect new technology and health risks posed by exposure to the microscopic fibers.
"The level of confusion on how we identify and analyze asbestos has to end," said Beard, who was an Environmental Protection Agency lead chemist for 26 years.
"This problem applied not only to crayons and talc, but to all materials analyzed for asbestos content."
Beard warned that confusing standards used by the government for risk assessment could affect "the well-being of schoolchildren, miners, construction workers, brake mechanics and consumers of all sorts of products."
The institute is the leading quality assurance arm for nearly 1,000 analytical labs accredited by the federal government and the American Industrial Hygiene Association. It financed the $70,000 study itself, rejecting support from federal agencies and industry to maintain impartiality.
The study began after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported last May that lab tests done for the newspaper revealed cancer-causing fibers in talc used by most crayon makers to strengthen the wax sticks. Within three weeks of the P-I report, more than 30 other government-certified labs around the country tested crayons for school districts, state agencies, ABC News and other media outlets. Although almost all found asbestos, labs commissioned by Crayola and a government lab used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported finding none.
"It was this inconsistency -- the discrepancies between labs testing the same material and reporting different findings -- that prompted our investigation," Beard said.
Crayola, Rose Art and other crayon makers denied there was asbestos in their products, but after additional safety commission tests verified the presence of trace amounts of the material and larger amounts of "asbestos-like fibers," the companies agreed to stop using talc. Crayola announced last week that it had done so, ahead of schedule.
"We have completed our crayon reformulation ahead of the voluntary commitment we made to the CPSC," said Stacy Gabrielle, spokeswoman for Binney & Smith, Crayola's manufacturer.
The institute did not find quantifiable amounts of any fiber in Rose Art crayons.
Health authorities believe the asbestos danger to children using crayons is minimal.
"I don't have any fear of kids using crayons because the fibers are encapsulated in wax," Beard says. "But I darn sure wouldn't want to be the guy at a factory who has to cut that bag of talc open and dump it into the hopper without protection or the guys who are mining it in New York."
Crayola last year said it had no knowledge of any employees suffering asbestos-related illness.
Workers at the R.T. Vanderbilt talc mine in Gouverneur, N.Y., the main source of talc for the crayon industry, have not been so fortunate. The P-I last June documented that hundreds of miners, millers and mine supervisors had died or were dying from disease caused by asbestos fibers in their lungs.
But mine officials pointed to years of Mine Safety and Health Administration tests that failed to detect asbestos in Vanderbilt's talc, although the tests did identify "similar-appearing fibers" called magnesio-anthophyllite.
This was the same substance that both the Research Triangle Institute and the lab used by the Consumer Product Safety Council call "transitional fibers" in their studies.
"Semantics -- that is what this fiber issue is coming down to," said Ronald Medford, the safety council's assistant executive director of hazards identification.
Test methods deficient
The Research Triangle Institute is uniquely qualified to question consistency in testing methods because it routinely audits the work done with asbestos by laboratories working for EPA. It said government asbestos test methods are deficient in two major areas -- identification of fibers and analytical methods used.
The U.S. Bureau of Mines lists more than 100 mineral fibers as asbestos-like fibers, yet the government, largely because of years of lobbying by the asbestos and stone industries, regulates only six. In effect, the government says that if a fiber isn't one of those six, it is not asbestos and therefore not a health risk.
At the same time, the analytical techniques used by government agencies don't reveal everything.
Today, commercial labs use three different levels of microscopic examination to detect and quantify asbestos fibers. What they can see and report varies dramatically with the technique used:
To put the following in perspective, consider that a human hair is about 100 micrometers thick.
Phase contrast microscopy (PCM) can detect fibers as small as 0.25 micrometers in diameter.
Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) can detect fibers as small as
0.01 micrometers or less.
The differences in analytical methods can have life-and-death ramifications for workers and consumers, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lab in Salt Lake City, for example, uses only the PCM test because that test alone is specified in Department of Labor enforcement standards. Reliance on the less-sensitive test could explain why that lab detected no asbestos in crayons examined for the safety commission last year.
The lab also does tests for the mine safety agency, whose former director, Davitt McAteer, responded quickly and strongly to a 1999 series of P-I articles about hundreds of miners and their family members from Libby, Mont., who were killed or sickened by exposure to asbestos from a W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine.
McAteer said he was most concerned by the newspaper's documentation that his agency, the EPA and branches of the Department of Health and Human Services knew for years that vermiculite miners were being exposed to lethal levels of asbestos, yet did nothing.
The inspectors general of EPA and Labor are trying to determine who dropped the ball, and to ensure it doesn't happen again, but McAteer's agency isn't waiting for their report. Reports of significant asbestos illness among New York talc miners and taconite iron miners along the Iron Range in Minnesota and Michigan prompted McAteer to order increased mine surveillance.
"This just doesn't make sense," McAteer said at the time. "Something has got to be wrong with how we're testing these ore samples."
OSHA had failed to find asbestos in mines, but McAteer ordered a shift to newer sample collection techniques already used by the Defense Department and other agencies.
The change made a difference. In October, MSHA released the findings of the first tests using the new method, reporting that ore from the Virginia Vermiculite mine, the largest of the nation's three remaining vermiculite mines, contained dangerously high levels of asbestos. Some of the ore samples tested for the agency by a private lab showed 95 percent to 99 percent asbestos.
After mine managers challenged the results, MSHA took new ore samples and subjected them to OSHA's traditional PCM tests. The results, released Monday, show no asbestos.
But agency investigators also gathered samples at identical times and locations and sent them for TEM tests in a highly respected Denver lab. That lab found asbestos in 18 of 27 samples.
MSHA says the inconsistency won't stop it from moving to protect workers.
"MSHA plans to gather as much information as we can about asbestos exposure, using any methods and any lab, if we can learn something. Wherever we do find asbestos -- using any method -- we'll alert mine operators and miners to talk to them about how to minimize their exposure," said Bob Elam, who became MSHA's acting administrator after McAteer's resignation.
Conflicting test results could affect research by other government agencies. For example, the EPA found asbestos contamination in the vermiculite of some garden products last year. At first, investigators believed it was old product from Libby, but later determined that it came from mines in Virginia and South Carolina. EPA is still trying the determine whether consumers are at risk from these products.
OSHA requested the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to evaluate workers at the Scott Co. in Marysville, Ohio, a major user of vermiculite in its garden products, and at other manufacturers of construction products that also use large amounts of the popcorn-like expanded ore. Those investigations are continuing.
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