World’s Top Environmental Success Stories

By Tom Randall and Eric Roston - 2012-09-18T01:07:59Z

Photograph by John Chiasson/Getty Images

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Asbestos

The first medical article about the dangers of asbestos was published in the British Medical Journal in 1924. It led to regulations that controlled dust emissions from U.K. factories. Four decades passed before scientists confirmed just how inadequate those restrictions were.

Asbestos is actually a name for six mined substances used in manufacturing for their durability and heat resistance. Asbestos particles break away and are easily inhaled into the lungs, where they can lead to fatal diseases including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Studies in the 1960s confirmed that the risk extended from the factory floor to suburban homes, where asbestos construction materials and brake pads were ubiquitous.

Lawsuits in the 1970s revealed that corporations knew about the risks for decades and concealed them from the public. Most of the companies that mined or used asbestos have since gone bankrupt, after billions of dollars in litigation losses. Even with strict regulations now in place across much of the world, researchers say deaths from past exposures will continue well into the 21st century.

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