Ep 81 Bhopal Disaster and Asbestos

This week's engineering failures are from our mini failure library. We’re talking about the Bhopal Disaster and Asbestos

Bhopal - Due to malfunctioning safety systems and a lack of safety culture, many people were poisoned and their lives impacted forever. 

Asbestos - Deadly little fibers that are in seemingly everything and can lay dormant for decades before wreaking havoc. 


Episode Summary

Hi and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures. I’m your host, Nicole. And I’m Brian. Our podcast journey has been a wild ride and we are immensely thankful for all of your support throughout the course of our show. Especially to our Patreon supporters. But we need a bit of a break this summer. I’m hiking in the mountains. And I’m playing beach volleyball. But we didn't want to stop giving you those engineering failures you know and love. So today we’re sharing some more of our mini failures. We’re going to share 6 of our mini failures over the next three episodes. These mini failures come from our environmental disaster series we did last fall. The next two we’re going to share with you are the Bhopal Gas Leak and Asbestos. Due to malfunctioning safety systems and a lack of safety culture, many people in Bhopal India were poisoned and their lives impacted forever. And asbestos kind of speaks for itself. Those deadly little fibers that are in seemingly everything and can lay dormant for decades before wreaking havoc. So without further adieu, here is our mini failure on the Bhopal Gas Leak, with the Asbestos episode to follow afterwards.

We seem to have misplaced our episode summary notes for the Bhopal diaster, but check out the sources for more info on what happened.

Hi, and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures. I’m your host, Nicole. And I’m Brian. And we’re both from Calgary, AB. Welcome to our thirty first mini-failure episode.

We’re bringing you engineering failures in bite-size pieces. Make no mistake, these are still significant failures, but they either have pretty straightforward causes or not enough information available for a full episode. These episodes are also just the failure, no news and no ads (for now at least). It’s like Failurology-lite.

This week’s mini failure is about Asbestos. The fourth in a series of at least 5, maybe 6, maybe more environmental disasters. We’ve talked about the love canal, not that kind of Love Canal), Minamata, and the Bhopal gas disaster so far.

        This episode is about the carcinogenic fibrous material, not the town in Quebec. Although we will talk about the town a little.  When I was much younger, I thought that asbestos was what people said after you sneezed, so I was very confused about why it was a risk to health, so I never said anything after people sneezed. 

        Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals made up of heat/electricity/corrosion resistant fibers that has been used in insulation, as a fire retardant, in flooring, brake pads, and in several other consumer products. That sounds like an amazing product!

        Inhalation of asbestos fibers, which are released when the material is disturbed, leads to various dangerous lung conditions such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

        Dating back to the stone age, with large scale mining beginning circa 1900s, asbestos is a great insulator and fire retardant. But due to its nasty health effects, its use has been significantly reduced in North America since the 80s after the health effects were more widely acknowledged in the 70s. Canada completely banned import of asbestos in 2018. That seems like a really long time to take to ban asbestos. Australia banned it in 2003. The UK banned it in 1999.

        But the US has still not completely banned asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a ban and phase out rule in 1989, but in 1991 this was overturned after industry supporters challenged it in a landmark lawsuit. Asbestos is a regulated substance and has been banned in specific products or applications, but some still legally allow trace amounts of asbestos.

Exposure Risks

        No amount of exposure to asbestos is safe, but for the most part, the higher the concentration or longer the period of time the worse the exposure.

        Asbestos accumulates in the body every time you're exposed and there is no known way to reverse it. This is made worse by the fact that the fibers are easy to inhale once they are airborne.

        You can also get secondary exposure, when someone carries asbestos fibers on their clothing that are then inhaled by other people who weren't near the initial exposure point.

        There are still several buildings constructed in the 70s or earlier that contain asbestos. Abatement has become somewhat commonplace to remove the asbestos during a renovation.

        The US military specifically, used asbestos extensively from the 30s to 70s, especially in naval ships, leading to a high amount of asbestos related diseases amongst veterans.

        There was also concern that residents and workers in the area of the world trade center collapse were exposed to asbestos, amongst other hazards.  More than 1,000 tons of asbestos were thought to have been released into the air when the towers came down.


        Environmental exposure is also a risk if you live near an asbestos mine or processing facility.

        Like Asbestos, Quebec, known as Val-des-Sources since Dec 15, 2020. Located about 150 km east of Montreal, this town is site of the Jeffrey Mine, which used to be the world’s largest asbestos mine and the Magnola magnesium refinery which is now closed. It was also the site of the 1949 asbestos strike.

        The strike was a four month labor dispute that was one of the most violent and bitter labor disputes in Quebec and Canadian history.

        Today there are still over a million tons mined worldwide. With Russia being the largest producer at 53%, followed by Kazakhstan at 16%, China at 15%, and Brazil at 11.5%. China, India and Indonesia are the largest consumers, representing almost 70% of the market.


        As early as the late 19th century, scattered reports on the health risks of asbestos emerged in Canada, Europe and the U.S. By the 1920s, leading medical journals had published articles linking asbestos to asbestosis, a new and sometimes fatal lung condition where inhaled asbestos scars the lungs and makes breathing difficult.

        The disease was a serious problem for asbestos workers, who often toiled in thick clouds of asbestos dust each day. Even in the 1920s, doctors believed asbestosis could be prevented by limiting exposure to asbestos. It would take several decades, however, before asbestos was properly regulated in the U.S. and workers learned their jobs could lead to cancer and other serious health complications years down the line.

        Asbestos manufacturers are held liable for the diseases their products cause because they covered up evidence of asbestos’ health effects and continued exposing workers and consumers.

        Former employees are filing lawsuits against asbestos companies, and so are the workers who used asbestos products on the job. Family members who develop mesothelioma through secondhand exposure are also eligible to file a legal claim.

        People with mesothelioma can be compensated through multiple legal options including trust funds established by asbestos companies that went bankrupt.

        Hundreds of thousands of patients and families have sought compensation for illnesses caused by the negligence of the asbestos industry. These claims hold the asbestos industry liable for the harm they’ve caused and provide much-needed compensation to cover medical bills and lost wages.

        Mesothelioma compensation is a financial award paid to patients and family members affected by mesothelioma cancer. The average settlement is $1 million to $1.4 million. Asbestos trust funds can pay more than $150,000.

So there you have it, Asbestos. Deadly little fibers that are in seemingly everything and can lay dormant for decades before wreaking havoc. If you think you have asbestos in your house, get it abated.

Thanks for listening to this mini-failure episode. For our regular episodes, check out Failurology wherever you get your podcasts.

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Bye everyone, talk soon!