The year I entered high school, the New York Board of Education delayed our first day of school for two weeks in order to remove “harmful” asbestos. I recall the news coming as more of an extension to summer vacation than a health measure. I hadn’t a clue what the stuff was or why it was harmful; only that it was hidden from view and needed to be removed carefully. Fast forward to 9/11, when the collapse of the towers sent thousands of pounds of iridescent dust into the sky blanketing all of lower Manhattan for months. The pulverized building materials contained asbestos, amongst other things, and everyone who worked at Ground Zero inhaled the largest dose of it. Within 10 years, we started seeing many first responders come down with all sorts of respiratory illnesses, among which was a rare form of cancer called Mesothelioma. Victims and their families have been fighting with Insurance companies and government health agencies ever since to acknowledge that the cancer was directly caused by all those hours exposed to asbestos dust. The sad fact is they shouldn’t have to. All one has to do is take a look back in history to the early part of the 20th century to know what a “silent killer” this material was and still is.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been mined for over 4000 years. In ancient times, it was used to strengthen cooking pots and for creating fire retardant cloth. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, it was only being used in cloth manufacture. However, this soon changed when its key properties of fire proofing and tensile strength helped builders solve the problem of insulating homes on the cheap in densely populated cities like London. Its affordability eventually made it the go to material for many items related to the home. As noted in this article from the Guardian, “The use of asbestos became increasingly widespread towards the end of the 19th century, when its diverse applications included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, and drywall joint compound.” It’s literally in everything! It makes you wonder how many homes built in the US still contain asbestos. Per the U.S. Product Safety Commission site, it’s noted that homes built between 1930 and 1950 may contain asbestos in their insulation. It also adds that in older homes (I’ll take a gander and say homes built in the early 1900’s) the pipes may be coated with asbestos or lined with asbestos blanket. Either way you look at it, asbestos is everywhere, but it only poses a threat if you disturb it.
There is written evidence even from Roman times that asbestos had detrimental affects on the body. In the early 1900’s there were a large number of respiratory issues and early deaths of people who worked with the material in mining towns. Also factored into this death toll were the wives and family members of the workers, presumably due to the fact that they laundered the uniforms caked in asbestos dust. When autopsies were done, the lungs of these people showed lesions and scar tissue created by the asbestos fibers they inhaled. These fibers are comprised of microscopic angular crystals that get into the respiratory tract and literally cut up lung tissue. The resulting scarring or fibrosis and constant irritation to the lung tissue led to a chronic respiratory condition coined asbestosis as well as the development of Mesothelioma. Many investigations were conducted in the early 1900’s into the hazards of asbestos, but this did nothing to curb its mining and use. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that government legislation was set up to regulate its industry; first in the UK and then the US. Better ventilation was called for as well as acknowledging asbestosis as an occupational disease. This was also when mesothelioma was first noted in medical text (c.1931)
With all this evidence, it really confounds me that insurance companies and the government agencies responsible for allocating funding to victims of 9/11 are giving claimants such a hard time. It also confounds me why the US has not fully banned the use of asbestos, unlike Australia and the UK. According to the EPA’s website, asbestos use is not banned in the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution in commerce of the following products:
- Cement corrugated sheet
- Cement flat sheet
- Pipeline wrap
- Roofing felt
- Vinyl floor tile
- Cement shingle
- Cement pipe
- Automatic transmission components
- Clutch facings
- Friction materials
- Disk brake pads
- Drum brake linings
- Brake blocks
- Non-roofing coatings
- Roof coatings
This past week of April 1-7th was Asbestos Awareness Week. If you never knew what the stuff was before reading the above, I hope you can understand just what a danger it poses to our environment and obviously, to our health. It’s a bit of a morbid addendum, but asbestos related illnesses, like Mesothelioma, take sometimes decades to show up. As a result, there will be many more deaths related to the dust inhaled after the Towers collapsed in the years to come. These people shouldn’t have to fight for the care they clearly deserve. For more information, see the websites noted below. Then go outside and take a deep breath for every person who can’t do so thanks to asbestos.
Additional Information and Sources:
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance: http://www.mesothelioma.com/asbestos-cancer/what-is-asbestos.htm
The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection: http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos
Columbia University Research: http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/medicine/mesothelioma/mesothel.html