Controversy surrounds respirator used for protection against asbestos

WATCH ABOVE: The disposable respirator is a simple enough device—a cheap, easy to use mask designed to keep dust out of the lungs. But over the years, critics of that simple respirator have raised serious questions. They say some masks didn’t go far enough to protect workers against deadly dust, like asbestos. Now, some nurses who are worried they’ll come into contact with Ebola are also asking the government tough questions and wondering if the mask they’ll wear will protect them.

“The 8710, that was a godsend we thought that was really the hot set up.”

Michael Leslie worked in a moulded fibreglass factory in the late 1960s and 70s.

The 8710, a disposable respirator made by 3M, was approved for use against deadly dusts, including silica, coal and asbestos. 3M advertised it would help protect workers from occupational hazards like Black Lung and Asbestosis. The mask would go on to be a big seller in the disposable respirator market and eventually sell millions.

Story continues below advertisement

Leslie says the 8710 was given out by his employer at his Portland Oregon factory. “We thought that was going to be better than anything,” Leslie says.

Leslie says he wore the mask in 1972 for about a year around dusts that included asbestos. He says it leaked.

WATCH BELOW: Michael Leslie wore a disposable respirator that the US government approved as effective protection against asbestos. He now has a deadly form of lung cancer and says the respirators didn’t work – a claim the respirator’s manufacturer denies. He says the government should have done a better job regulating asbestos.

“If you wore a mask very long it was on inside and outside. You could see it, just little teeny particles…The outside a lot.”

But, over a thousand miles south of Leslie’s factory, respirator experts had concerns.

Story continues below advertisement

“We would discuss how badly they leaked… we did not want to allow the 8710 or any other single use respirator for that matter to be available at the Laboratory,” says Darell Bevis, a respirator expert who worked at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico under his boss Ed Hyatt. The lab tested masks used for protection against dangerous and sometimes radioactive material.

In 1970, Hyatt told 3M their respirators “should have at least two sizes, our present one and a smaller one, if we hope to fit the majority of workers.” Hyatt wanted to make sure all workers had respirators that safely fit them. For him the benefits of more mask sizes were obvious. In 1976, Hyatt also wrote a report to the government saying more testing would need to be done, “before it is demonstrated that only one size of respirator is satisfactory.”

But the 8710 passed all the tests and would be approved by the U.S. government’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1972.

Darell Bevis and other observers have criticized the testing requirements in place at the time. Darell Bevis has also worked as an expert witness on behalf of plaintiffs suing 3M. “Our approval standards are very bad and all regulations are absolute minimum requirements.”

16×9 asked 3M for an on camera interview but the company declined, and instead provided a written statement. It pointed to “extensive” government data that says masks, like the 8710, fit and work well. Since its approval, studies have shown the “respirator effectively protects workers from many airborne contaminants, including asbestos.” One U.S. government agency that reviewed the data “rejected assertions that 3M 8710 respirators, and similarly designed respirators made by others, do not filter effectively or cannot be made to fit workers.” 3M has also said its tests went well beyond what the government required and that research shows the 8710 provided a good fit if users followed instructions.

Story continues below advertisement

In fact, U.S. government regulators have long said the 8710 provides better protection than experts, like Bevis, argue.

But asbestos is very dangerous – and just a small amount of exposure can be deadly.

By 1980, NIOSH did know how deadly asbestos really was and was “deeply concerned” about the use of some respirators against carcinogenic substances including asbestos.

“Asbestos irritates the cells in some way we don’t know exactly how… [it] gets into the DNA… the nucleus which controls cell growth and they lose control over the growth of the cells… that is the definition of cancer,” says Dr. David Egilman, an expert in asbestos-related disease.

NIOSH changed its earlier position now telling 3M, “It is not our position that single-use dust respirators will provide adequate protection against the cancer causing potential of asbestos.”

Story continues below advertisement

But NIOSH said it couldn’t void the approval of the respirator against asbestos without “following appropriate administrative procedures” so, instead, called for more study and data from the manufacturers.

“What 3M was told was, this is dangerous to use this mask with people who are exposed to asbestos,” Egilman, who has testified on behalf of plaintiffs against 3M and reviewed some of 3M’s internal documents, says.

“They didn’t take away the seal of approval. And what did 3M do? They continued to market it… for asbestos.”

Egilman has been criticized in the past for being a public health crusader and courts have not accepted his testimony in every case he has testified in.

But in 1986, the U.S. government did issue more stringent regulations that effectively put an end to the use of disposable respirators, like the 8710, for use against asbestos.

“Ultimately, the single use respirator was going to leak far greater than they wanted any respirator used for protection against carcinogens,” says Darell Bevis.

But, while in the U.S laws were getting stricter and 3M was no longer selling the mask for asbestos, one 3M official admitted that in 1999 the company was still selling the 8710 in Canada as effective against asbestos – almost fifteen years after it stopped doing so in the U.S.

Story continues below advertisement

The 8710 is no longer sold in the U.S. and Canada. But, despite that, the 8710 is still sold for use against asbestos in India “for use against mechanically generated particulates including silica and asbestos.”

“From a health and safety perspective they shouldn’t be doing that. From a moral perspective they shouldn’t be doing that. From an ethical perspective they shouldn’t be doing that,” Dr. David Egilman says.

3M told 16×9 each country establishes its “own safety and health regulations” and the respirators provide effective protection for asbestos and meet “the highest regulatory requirements of each nation where they are sold.” 3M also said that the respirators sold today are “not necessarily identical to the 8710 respirators that were sold previously in the United States.”

For Michael Leslie, all the back and forth that happened in the 1980s doesn’t matter much. “When I think back on it I think, ‘geez I wish I….I wish I had had something else’,” Leslie says about the 8710 respirators he says he wore. He has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, one of the deadliest forms of cancer. A cancer he thinks could have been prevented with a better mask.

Leslie sued several companies, including 3M, saying the mask didn’t protect him. In court documents, 3M said that Leslie’s employer “did not comply with state or federal rules for protecting employees.” 3M also argued that Leslie’s employer was responsible for workplace training and safety, and making sure masks fit workers and that there was no evidence that his employer measured the level of asbestos in the air, important for choosing the right respirator.

Story continues below advertisement

In court documents, 3M also denied that its mask could be blamed saying that Mr. Leslie was exposed to asbestos for over a decade without any respirator and he may not have worn the 8710 at all while working with asbestos in the plant.

Nothing was proven in court because the case was settled.

3M told us that it has prevailed at trial in every case. Courts, 3M says, have rejected arguments that the 8710 did not fit or filter effectively. Workers “wearing a respirator and later becoming ill does not necessarily prove the cause of illness.”

Instead, 3M says, workers may “become ill because they did not consistently wear respiratory protection when needed. Employers can also contribute to worker illness to the extent they fail to monitor the air and select the appropriate respiratory protection for the contaminant in the air.” 3M also says that employers may not have tested regularly to ensure that respirators fit on people’s faces or “train [employees] in proper respirator usage.”

One 3M official has also testified that the 8710 itself came in one size but the company did sell “other sizes – they just weren’t called 8710.”

3M has never lost a case at trial or admitted wrongdoing. But according to 3M financial reports, the company has paid out over $150 million in the last four years mostly on “respirator mask” litigation “fees and settlements”.

Story continues below advertisement

“They settle cases where they think they’re going to lose,” says Dr. Egilman.

“I’ve been an expert in cases, where in my view their respirators failed to protect people and people got sick.”

16×9’s “The Respirator” airs this Saturday at 7pm.