When more than 200 professionals from around the globe meet in bucolic Vermont every three years, they share the potential to impact health and business, to address past problems and future needs. These scientists, researchers, manufacturers, healthcare providers, attorneys and others attend the ASTM International Johnson Conference on Asbestos, which was started in the 1980s and is today a vibrant, albeit nonpublishing, group.
Under the auspices of ASTM Committee D22 on Air Quality, conference goers spend several days discussing and sometimes debating the latest research on a subject so safety-critical that the ASTM standards that arise from this research are utilized by governments to monitor and regulate asbestos. And the subject is so complex that conference participants find they are working even today to define it.
"That's what's great about the Johnson Conference," says Harry Rook, a 40-year member of ASTM, 35-year member and past chairman of Committee D22, and retired deputy director of the Materials Science Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "We get people in a room and we yell at each other for a week."
That might sound like Rook is making light of a serious subject, but he indeed knows just how important are both the conference and the committee-developed, consensus ASTM standards that eventually result from its oral presentations and posters.
A fire retardant and sound absorber, asbestos could be, and still can be, found in or on floor tiles, pipes, ships, concrete and more. Asbestos also can be found in people's lungs, with deadly health consequences. According to the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, when the tiny fibers in asbestos are inhaled they can remain in individuals' lungs for a long time. They can lead to such conditions as asbestosis, which scars lung tissue; lung cancer; and pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma, cancer of the linings of the lungs and abdomen.
Whether considered protective or destructive or both, asbestos is not a simple subject. This year's conference, the ASTM Johnson Conference on Asbestos, Almost Asbestos and Asbestos Progeny: New Challenges, will address the definition of this material as well as other current topics when it convenes July 21-25 at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
"One of the difficult problems in the asbestos area is that there are different definitions and terms used by different groups. Even the term ‘asbestos' means different things to different people in the geology, medical, industrial hygiene and legal communities," says James R. Millette, Ph.D., executive director, MVA Scientific Consultants, Duluth, Ga., immediate past chairman of Subcommittee D22.07 on Sampling and Analysis of Asbestos, and current technical vice chairman of D22; and co-chairman of the conference with Rook, Larry Pierce and James Webber.
That description of the current state of affairs might sound like the early stages of a conference, but this one is several decades old and constantly evolving.
The late former Committee D22 chairman, Benjamin Levadie, professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and chief environmental health officer of the Vermont State Department of Health, started the conference in 1967, which was held until 2001 at the Vermont Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt.
Levadie had also helped start D22's Project Threshold to determine atmospheric concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and health-impacting ozone, and he intended that the new conference would help gain input for Project Threshold and ASTM standards.
Early conferences focused on the science of measuring air pollutants, gases and particulates found in the atmosphere and on the quality assurance measures that laboratories needed to ensure reliable data, according to Rook. What happened at the conference, at least initially, stayed at the conference.
"One of Ben's innovations that continues today is that, since he wanted new ideas and the latest research, there was no publication of the presentations, and he directed that recording or quoting without the presenters' written permission was prohibited," says Rook. "What Johnson is about is to get us thinking about new ideas that we then go back to our laboratories and study. We don't publish so that people can bring their latest ideas and hopefully research that can be mulled over and agreed upon."
By the mid-1970s, the conference had become a premier event on the measurement sciences of air pollutants, says Rook, who ran the conference from 1978 to 1988.
The first Johnson Conference to address the issue of asbestos was held in 1986. While early on only geologists and manufacturing engineers were interested in asbestos, by the early 1980s people had become more aware of the impact of asbestos on health. Scientists, doctors and lawyers became even more interested in the subject and started flocking to the conference. By the late 1980s the conference evolved from complete focus on identification and quantification of asbestos - primarily in the air but also in dust, building materials and soil - through a time of "disarray" to new frontiers.
In 1988, the conference began attracting international participation, with people attending from Canada, Europe and the Far East. That year, Beard brought in presenters from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which was mandated by Congress to develop a laboratory accreditation program for asbestos standards.
By 1988 attendance had jumped from 40-60 participants to more than 100 attendees, a number that has more than doubled today.
Pierce, president and lab director at Fiberquant Inc., Phoenix, Ariz., says that every Johnson Conference, which is considered the premier international event on the subject of asbestos, has updates on state, federal and international regulations; provides information on the newest ASTM standards and regulatory methods of monitoring and analyzing asbestos; and highlights case studies of asbestos occurrence, remediation and contamination, among other topics.
Rook says the conference never would have progressed without Michael Beard, at one time the chairman of Subcommittee D22.07 on Sampling and Analysis of Asbestos, and senior research chemist and asbestos program manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at Research Triangle Park, N.C. Beard helped coordinate sessions in the 1990s from a hospital after being diagnosed with cancer, Rook says, from which he died in 2008. "I don't think we would ever have gotten consensus asbestos standards approved through ASTM. People on the subcommittee had very different ideas on the best methods for the identification and measurement of asbestos and on how you would use those methods in consensus standards," Rook says. "It was incredibly important to get the first standard out, and Mike made that happen. The impact has been huge. In the boardrooms of industry and in the courtroom, ASTM standards are now the gold standard."
Those standards are related to identifying and measuring asbestos fibers in air, dust, bulk materials and soil. Committee D22 worked with other committees interested in asbestos and developed measurement standards compatible with their scopes.
That the standards are important is a given, considering the weight of the topic and their application for such concerns as assessing the impact of the dust from the collapsed World Trade Center that coated residences and businesses in New York, N.Y., after Sept. 11, 2001.
Millette says, "As with many other ASTM methods, ASTM standards pertaining to asbestos are highly regarded in the industrial, legal and governmental communities. The Johnson Conferences have served as an important vehicle to foster open discussions among groups."
He adds, "ASTM D22.07 standards are used every day in asbestos remediation, monitoring and contamination assessment. Samples of air, settled dust and soil are evaluated using ASTM standards developed by D22.07 to determine the amount and type of asbestos fibers present. The techniques are used to understand the extent that a site might be contaminated with asbestos. Having standard methods that are used by all laboratories is critical to interpreting the data. When a method has been agreed upon by the consensus approach of ASTM, individuals reviewing data produced by different laboratories can have confidence that all the data will be reliable and comparable. Similarly the ASTM guides that have been produced by ASTM D22.07 for working with asbestos have been peer-reviewed and accepted by a committee composed of some of the most active and experienced practitioners in the asbestos remediation and asbestos analytical industry."
In addition to ongoing work to clarify the definition of asbestos for all stakeholders, the nine sessions in this year's conference will touch on such topics as medical research, environmental monitoring and remediation, and litigation and science.
The conference coordinators expect environmental consultants; laboratory analysts and managers; building owners; epidemiologists; land use planners and regulators; and federal, state and local government officials to attend.
And today, the conference and ASTM's work continues.Patricia Quigley is an award-winning journalist and public relations practitioner who has written for local, regional, national and international publications. She resides in southern New Jersey, where she earned a B.A. in communication and an M.A. in writing from Rowan University.
ASTM International Committee D22 on Air Quality develops standards in all areas of air measurements. It has technical subcommittees on ambient, workplace and indoor air and has specialty subcommittees on quality assurance, source emissions, asbestos, mold and meteorology.
Subcommittee D22.07 on Sampling and Analysis of Asbestos has 12 active and nine proposed standards. Among them are: