The Silent Killer
There is no such thing as safe exposure to asbestos. Airborne exposure to these microscopic, fibrous minerals leads to asbestos-related cancers, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis, and results in death for an estimated 107,000 innocent individuals each year. The horrid truth is that all deaths and illnesses related to asbestos are entirely preventable, yet each day 30 Americans will die of an asbestos-related illness. The manufacturing, import and export, and use of asbestos in every day products continues, however, despite publication of scientific evidence that proves the life-terminating effects of the material.
The first uses of asbestos, which literally means “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable,” dates back to over 2,000 years ago on the ancient Greek island of Ewoia, believed to be home of the first asbestos mine. The “near-magical properties” of asbestos, from its tensile strength to its ability to resist fire, heat, and acid, resulted in popular use and the development of a thriving asbestos industry. Countries across the globe contributed to this industry for decades prior to the discovery of its detrimental health effects. Industrialized countries, including the United States, have used this inexpensive, naturally occurring, fibrous mineral for a wide array of products, including pipe and ceiling insulation, ship-building materials, brake shoes and pads, bricks, roofing, and flooring, and more.
With the rise of the Industrial Revolution during the late 1800s, asbestos use in the U.S. began to flourish and gained significant popularity in a number of industries. Even with its historically documented biological effects, it began to be used as insulation for steam pipes, turbines, boilers, kilns, ovens, and other high-temperature products. As the centuries waned, asbestos use continued and found its way to the U.S. Navy. The silent killer was utilized to insulate virtually ever chamber in the navy vessels and thousands of the veterans of World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War were exposed to asbestos while aboard military aircraft and navy ships. Asbestos was also employed in the production of over 300 products necessary in the construction and preservation of navy vessels, such as valves, adhesives, cables and gaskets.
With the progression of time, more and more uses for asbestos were discovered, even after several studies in the U.S. in the early-1900s noted that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young and major medical journals began to publish articles that directly linked asbestos to cancer. Asbestos use continued to surge in the automobile industry, in brake and clutch lining, and in the construction industry, in a variety of products including cement, roof of shingles, floor and ceiling tiles, siding, stucco, plaster, and more. Unfortunately, records indicate that industries continued to ignore the noted dangers of asbestos and continued to unjustly expose its employees to the deadly material for the sake of profits. It wasn’t until 1971 that government legislation, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, intervened and began to regulate asbestos exposure.
Presently, however, the U.S. still has not banned asbestos and continues to stubbornly import chrysotile asbestos to “meet manufacturing needs,” despite the strong scientific evidence of the severe health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Ships docked in U.S. ports still unload asbestos in the states of Louisiana, Texas, California and New Jersey – just to name a few. For the past two years, the chloralkali industry has increased usages, even though viable and affordable asbestos substitutes exist and have been utilized in other countries. More than 31 million tons of asbestos was imported from 1900 to present, which has and continues to compromise workers’ health and safety. An estimated 35 million U.S. homes, schools, and buildings contain asbestos-contaminated materials. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that in the U.S., “An estimated 1.3 million employees in the construction and general industry face significant asbestos exposure on the job.” In May 2010, the United States President’s Cancer Panel reported, “Construction workers were found to be 11 times more likely to develop mesothelioma, due to asbestos exposures at the site.” Additionally, it was reported that 2,600 tons of asbestos was collected after the Joplin, Missouri tornado and tons of toxic debris littered the coastline after Hurricane Sandy. Occupational exposures can occur during maintenance, construction, abatement, and hazardous debris removal. Analyzing the asbestos import rates and morbidity/mortality rates, the ongoing asbestos problem in the U.S. is obvious. The correlations of the findings are not limited to the United States because they also have global ramifications. This data from the U.S. analysis when correlated to global occupational exposure reveals a global public health trend that affects all of the Americas.
When my father was diagnosed with stage-four mesothelioma in 2002, the most progressive stage of the cancer, the doctors said the particles had been lingering in his system without any symptoms for 25 years and estimated he had one month to live. Ironically, while working and trying to make a living for himself, he was unknowingly exposed to a toxic material that would financially cost him more for treatment than what he was making at work, and eventually cost him his life. He went against the doctor’s estimates and fought with the cancer for seven years. In those seven years, he overcame surgeries, numerous chemotherapy sessions, and lived his life in a constant struggle. Asbestos-related cancer victims go on to die painful, brutal deaths. In the last sixth months of his life, similar to what many patients will endure, he could not eat, hardly slept, had a tube shoved up his nose, and suffered excessively as a result of exposure to this material. Exposure to asbestos did not only result in a physical and emotional struggle for my father, but for my whole family. Even if other members of my family, anyone my father influenced, or myself were not directly exposed to it, we all had to face the consequences of asbestos. Asbestos not only affects millions of its victims, but also billions of families, friends, and communities around the world.
To protect the health of all people in the world – industrial workers, construction workers, spouses and children, now and in generations to come – it is essential to spread asbestos and mesothelioma awareness. More than two million tons of this material is produced each year, and according to the International Social Security Administration, figures for asbestos manufacture and use have begun to climb again. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2012 alone, 1,060 tons of asbestos were imported into the U.S. to meet so-called “manufacturing needs.” Asbestos lingers not only in the workplace, but also in the environment. In countries like the U.S. where asbestos continues to be used today, asbestos-contaminated dust accumulates in thousands of communities. Safer substitutes to replace this killer have already been implemented successfully in 52 countries. The only realistic and sustainable answer to this pandemic is complete removal of asbestos worldwide. The primary influence on governments to ban asbestos comes from the voice of the public. Very rarely do people see a story on asbestos in the media, but when the public is educated and acts on the information, the greatest success is seen. The fate of hundreds relies on citizens to promote awareness and come together to demand all countries to ban the manufacture, trade and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing products as soon as possible. Ultimately, what’s worth more – an inexpensive material or our lives?
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