February 23, 2019

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.

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Global News

“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.

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.

“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.