16. Fiberglass -- The Carcinogen that's Deadly and
Sources: RACHELS ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #444 Date: 6/1/95;
"A Carcinogen That's Everywhere"; Author: Peter Montague;
IN THESE TIMES Date: 8/21/95; "Fiberglass, the Asbestos of the
90's"; Author: Joel Bleifuss
SYNOPSIS: A World War I era shortage of asbestos, once valued
for its thermal insulation and fire resistant properties, spurred the
first full-scale production of fiberglass in the United States. Unfortunately,
man-made glass fibers have been found to share another characteristic
with naturally-occurring asbestos fibers: they can cause lung cancer
According to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, asbestos
will have killed 300,000 Americans by the end of this century. As it
was phased out, fiberglass production has steadily increased. More than
30,000 commercial products now contain fiberglass. Uses include thermal
insulation, acoustic insulation, fireproofing and various applications
in automotive components. Fiberglass insulation is present in 90 percent
of American homes.
In the early 1970s, a body of evidence linking these ubiquitous fibers
to lung disease began to accumulate. In a series of papers published
from 1969 to 1977, the National Cancer Institute determined that tiny
glass fibers were "potent carcinogens" in laboratory rats
and that "it is unlikely that different mechanisms are operative
in man." Specifically noted was the cancerous potential of fibrous
glass in the pleura of lab animals. The pleura is the outer casing of
the lungs; in humans, cancer of the pleura is called mesothelioma and
it is caused by asbestos fibers.
The finding that fiberglass causes diseases similar to asbestos was
chilling news in the early 1970s and an additional 25 years of research
has only confirmed the earlier warnings. In 1990, members of the U.S.
National Toxicology Program (NTP), who represent ten federal health
agencies, stated unanimously: "Fiberglass may reasonably be anticipated
to be a carcinogen" in humans. NTP was preparing to include fiberglass
in its 1992 Seventh Annual Report on Carcinogens when politics intervened.
Although fiberglass industry lobbying delayed publication of NTP's conclusions
for two years, the report was sent to Congress in June 1994.
Following the report, Health and Human Services finally determined
that fiberglass should be listed as a substance "for which there
is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and/or sufficient evidence
of carcinogenicity in experimental animals." Yet the news made
scarcely a ripple in the national media. In These Times learned from
a source who asked to remain anonymous that ABC news executives bowed
to industry pressure not to air a "20/20" investigation on
the dangers of fiberglass. What coverage there was played down any threat
to public health. Frank Swoboda and Maryann Haggerty in the Washington
Post reported as fact the assertion of Public Health Service spokesman
Bill Grigg that there is no data "that would indicate there's any
problem that would involve any consumer or worker." Grigg ignored
six epidemiological studies that showed otherwise.
Robert Horowitz, chairman of Victims of Fiberglass, said, "The
arguments from industry are the same arguments that we've seen time
and time again. It doesn't matter what the substance is. Whether it
is DDT or cigarettes or asbestos, industry says, "You can't prove
beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are killing you.' But do we have
to wait for that absolute scientific proof before we do something? Breathing
in microscopic shards of glass could not possibly be good for you."
SSU Censored Researcher: Mike Thomas
COMMENTS: Author Peter Montague, of the Environmental Research
Foundation, said the subject received almost no media attention, "even
after the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) declared in June 1994
that fiberglass is 'reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.' This
story should have been on every television set and in every newspaper.
Unfortunately it was hardly covered at all. Part of the responsibility
lies with government officials because they chose to minimize the importance
of their own announcement. It seems to me, their purpose was most likely
to protect the interest of the $2 billion-per-year fiberglass industry.
"Fiberglass is pervasive in our society -- 90 percent of all homes
are now insulated with it -- and it will cause many cancers in the coming
decades. It should be banned for the same reasons that asbestos has
been banned. Of particular importance is the finding that fiberglass
is now found everywhere in the environment. Forty years ago one could
not measure fiberglass in the ambient air. Today fiberglass can be measured
in the air on remote mountain tops in California. Since fiberglass is
'reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen,' the public needs to know
the facts about fiberglass, so that public health policy can evolve
through informed debate."
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) first proposed to list fiberglass
as a probable carcinogen in its Seventh Annual (1993) Report on Carcinogens.
"In response," Montague said, "the North American Insulation
Manu-facturers Association (NAIMA) hired a former member of President
Clinton's transition team to lobby Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health
and Human Services. After receiving a letter from NAIMA's lobbyist,
Secretary Shalala postponed the publication of the NTP report and called
for an unprecedented review of NTP's decision on fiberglass. Furthermore,
NAIMA threatened to take legal action if the NTP listed fiberglass as
a probable carcinogen. NAIMA has four members: CertainTeed Corp.; Owens-Corning
Fiber Glass Corp; Knauf Fiber Glass GMBH; and Schuller International,
Inc. (formerly Manville Co.).
"Donna Shalala eventually accepted NTP's classification of fiberglass
as a probable carcinogen but her agency downplayed the announcement
of the NTP report and particularly downplayed the importance of declaring
fiberglass a probable human carcinogen. The interests of the four corporations
that comprise NAIMA are uniquely served by Secretary Shalala's spin
on the issue, and by the scant news coverage."
Montague concludes that while the debate over the hazards of fiberglass
continues to rage, "five billion pounds of new fiberglass are being
added each year to the world's growing inventory of this poison. As
a result, our children will be breathing a few fibers of fiberglass
with every breath they take, no matter where on earth they take it.
This cannot be good news."
Joel Bleifuss, author of the In These Times article, charged that the
"potential threat to human health from fiberglass has received
virtually no exposure in the mass media, with the exception of some
very poor reporting in the Washington Post." While some journalists
were very interested in the subject, no major coverage resulted. For
example, a reporter for a major television news program explored this
story and invested a lot of time researching the subject. But the story
was finally rejected by the executive producer after the reporter concluded
that fiberglass was more harmful than the industry admits. Bleifuss
acknowledged that his concern about press freedom at a network news
show is "more disturbing to me as a journalist than is the fact
that a story about a public health threat was canned by a major network
Bleifuss feels the fiberglass issue is a subject in dire need of public
exposure. "Virtually every homeowner I know has at some time in
their life installed fiberglass without a respirator. I have done so
several times. Further, I believe that exposure of the issue would help
curtail the dangerous practice of insulating houses with blown fiberglass
The politically powerful fiberglass industry is clearly benefiting
from the limited coverage given this subject, according to Bleifuss
who adds, "Dow Corning, which is particularly influential, is doing
all it can to prevent fiberglass from becoming another asbestos-like
In These Times published two letters concerning Bleifuss' article in
its November 13, 1995, issue. In one, Robert Horowitz, cited above in
the synopsis, notes that formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is used in
manufacturing fiberglass insulation and believes it deserves further
study. In the other, Catherine I. Imus, communications director for
the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association, said, "...in
the most recently completed review of the available scientific evidence
regarding fiberglass, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health
concluded that "taken together, the data indicate that among those
occupationally exposed, glass fibers do not appear to increase the risk
of respiratory system cancer."
Bleifuss responded that the review failed to examine published work
by scientists whose research has shown fiberglass to be carcinogenic.
And he points out, "This glaring omission is perhaps explained
by the fact that the Harvard study was supported by a grant from the
North American Insulation Manufacturers Association."