Feds Toughen Limit on Asbestos Exposure in Nation’s Mines

March 3, 2008

A federal limit on asbestos exposure at mining operations nationwide is now in line with the standard for other industries.

A final rule issued Friday by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration limits asbestos exposure to two fibers per cubic centimeter. That limit already is in place for industries covered by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

MSHA’s previous limit was 20 times higher than OSHA’s cap.

The final rule applies to exposure at metal and nonmetal mines, surface coal mines and surface areas of underground coal mines.

The U.S. Department of Labor recommended that MSHA toughen its standard after news reports in 1999 linked asbestos contamination at the now-closed W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont., to an unusually large number of deaths and illnesses.

The vermiculite mine provided material for various household products, fireproofing and insulation. It also blew tremolite asbestos – a particularly hazardous form of the mineral – all over Libby.

The long, needlelike asbestos tremolite fibers can easily become embedded in human lungs and cause asbestosis, often fatal, or mesothelioma, a rare, fast-moving cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs. Tremolite asbestos is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people and sickening one of every eight Libby residents.

Acting MSHA director Richard Stickler said the new asbestos exposure limit would “help improve health protection for miners who work in an environment where asbestos is present.”

“Furthermore, it will help lower the risk of material impairment of health or functional capacity over a miner’s working lifetime,” Stickler said last week in a prepared statement.

Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA staffer and a public health researcher at George Washington University, said the new limit is good but doesn’t go far enough.

“MSHA needs to come up with a broader rule that requires more steps to limit asbestos exposure and better monitor mining operations,” Monforton said. ‘”Miners still don’t have the same level of protections as other workers in the country.”

Information from: The Charleston Gazette,

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