During the late 1800s, when businesses began industrial-scale mining, asbestos only harmed miners and shipbuilders – professions that involved direct exposure to huge amounts of the carcinogenic mineral. But, like a virus that spreads from one person to the next, asbestos exposure spread outwards from the mining community to harm workers in all of the many industries that use asbestos-containing products.
Now, after more than a century of mining, shipping, refining, and building with the deadly mineral fiber, it lurks in a host of every day objects. Hidden in car brake parts, floor tiles, and drywall, asbestos fibers now harm children and schoolteachers as often as they do auto mechanics and telecommunications workers.
Every single year over 2 million pounds of new asbestos enters the United States. Most people have no clue where those 2 million pounds will end up – into what products they will be slipped. The cold reality is: in the 21st century, asbestos diseases threaten everyone and that threat will not go away until America kicks its asbestos habit.
A Family Shattered by Corporate Negligence
The Center for Public Integrity and NPR ran a joint story about Kris Penny, a 39-year-old former "cable-puller" for AT&T who discovered that he had stage-4 malignant mesothelioma throughout his abdomen.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer caused exclusively by asbestos exposure; it has no cure and is extremely difficult for medical professionals to treat. Penny unknowingly breathed in microscopic asbestos particles while replacing miles of underground cables for BellSouth, now AT&T. The cables on which Penny worked were packed inside of asbestos-based cement, which at times gave off so much dust that workers were forced to "jump out of the manhole" to breathe.
Penny, like many Americans, spent time around equipment that had been installed 20 and 30 years ago. While BellSouth knew that its cables were packed in asbestos-based cement, the company made little to no effort to warn the contractors with which it worked. This negligent behavior isn’t unique to AT&T; it’s an unfortunate trend among corporations in all sectors, from automakers to paper companies.
After being diagnosed, Penny endured an 8 ½ hour surgery as well as chemotherapy in an attempt to extend his life. In the process he lost 70 pounds and became so exhausted that, in order to walk, he had to "think about every step."
6-year-old Cloey Penny is Kris’s daughter and, as he describes her, his "best friend in the whole world." The reality for Cloey is that her father – sick, skeletal, and exhausted – is eventually going to succumb to mesothelioma. Even the best treatments are only buying him time. Kris’s wife, Lori, must work more to support her family, making it harder for her to spend precious time with her husband in these, his last days and weeks alive.
The Penny family is showing great bravery in the way it endures and holds together despite tragedy. The worst part is that Kris Penny’s suffering is completely unnecessary. Asbestos is not an essential material and many countries function quite well without it.
American companies only use asbestos because it’s cheap – safer alternatives have existed for decades. A testament to the dangers of asbestos is that the fiber has been banned in 57 countries around the world, including all of Western Europe, or what many consider to be the most affluent and modern region in the world, alongside the U.S. It’s baffling and disheartening that the U.S. allows up to 10,000 people a year to die from a substance that many parts of the world won’t even touch.
How Corporate Lies Created an Asbestos Epidemic
From the 1850s to the early 1900s, asbestos was mined on a massive and increasingly industrial scale at locations like the Jeffery Mine and surrounding Thetford Township in Quebec, Canada. Corporations like Johns-Manville owned these mines and used them to extract tens of thousands of tons of the raw asbestos. Asbestos miners around the world were kept ignorant of the danger facing themselves and their families. Once inside of the body, asbestos fibers never leave, but continue to damage the protective tissues around the lung, heart, and abdomen. These miners of the late 1800s and early 1900s were the first wave of asbestos victims.
The second, modern wave of asbestos disease afflicted shipbuilders, roofers, and contractors who were harmed by using asbestos-containing products sold by mega corporations like Koch Industries and 3M. This wave extended from the 1930’s and reached its peak in the 70s and 80s.
This second wave was perhaps more chilling than the first because by the 1930s medical professionals and business executives alike knew that asbestos was a lethal mineral responsible for killing thousands. Despite this documented knowledge, massive corporations like Johns-Manville lied to their workers and suppressed information about mortality and illness rates.
Corporate efforts to deceive workers are detailed in a series of once-private documents. One executive admitted in a private memo "that the documents are evidence of a corporate conspiracy to prevent asbestos workers from learning that their exposure to asbestos could kill them." Another employee, who helped write a misleading document for Johns-Manville was told to hire a lawyer because he and other executives could be "indicted for manslaughter." This ongoing deceit, which occurred over a 50-year period between the 1930s and 80s, laid the groundwork for the current epidemic of asbestos diseases – the third wave.
As wealthy corporations poured money into denying the lethality of asbestos and propping up companies that utilized asbestos in their manufacturing, the mineral fiber found its way into unexpected products like cement, insulation, and even cigarette filters. Though federal regulations limited the use of pure asbestos, they still allowed companies to mix smaller amounts of the deadly substance into other products and compounds. Few of these products offer clear warnings of their danger.
Asbestos is no longer solely a threat to miners and workers in asbestos-related industries – it is now a threat of epidemic proportions that affects everyone.
Asbestos Is Everywhere & All Americans Are at Risk
Bill Rogers worked at a series of General Motors car dealerships over the span of 44 years. Rogers used compressed air to blast clean brake parts on a regular basis, not worrying about the dust it kicked up. During Rogers’ 4-decade career nobody ever told him that those brake parts contained asbestos. And the dust he was kicking up? It wasn’t dust at all. It was a toxic mixture of dust and microscopic asbestos fibers. Inhaling just one asbestos fiber into the lungs can cause mesothelioma. Not until Rogers started having trouble breathing at the age of 67 was he officially diagnosed with this lethal cancer.
Asbestos fibers are hidden away in the brake parts of cars, which are worked on by mechanics and can be ultimately driven by anyone. Those mechanics can breathe in trace amounts of fibers as well as get them on their clothes. Once the fibers are out in the open they can land on the customers’ clothes or be breathed in by the mechanic’s family. In this way the harmful fibers spread in an ever-expanding web that acts similarly to a virus or infection.
Even those who don’t use heavy machinery face grave risks. When Kentucky schoolteacher Roger Hall started teaching history at Letcher High School in 1976, he had no idea he was endangering his life. After a 33-year teaching career, Hall was diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 63.
Hall was aware of asbestos in general but never thought it could affect teachers or students, "We always kind of knew [asbestos] was here. We just assumed it was being taken care of the way it was supposed to be taken care of," Hall told a Kentucky news station.
Like Hall, schoolteachers around the country have become the newest set of victims in the Third Wave of Asbestos. In the UK, teachers are exposed to asbestos every time they push a thumbtack into the wall. One pin or tack alone can release up to 6,000 fibers. British schoolteacher Gina Lees died at only 51-years-old after a 30-year career. Similarly, Marion Potts spent 25 years supporting her students by tacking up their work along the walls of her classroom. That simple gesture – which should never be considered, by any stretch, dangerous – resulted in her developing mesothelioma. Potts lost her battle to the cancer at 63-years-old.
Exposure doesn’t stop with adults – children breathe in asbestos fibers in schools throughout the country. When districts attempt to remove the asbestos, they hire renovators who are then themselves placed at risk. Every single person who comes into contact with asbestos fibers has a chance spreading those fibers to someone else. The simple fact is that there is no safe way to work with, or even live near this deadly mineral.
When Will Asbestos Stop Hurting Americans?
As mentioned previously, the U.S. still imports over 2 million pounds of asbestos every year. This yearly delivery means that the third wave of asbestos disease has no foreseeable end in sight.
To put it into perspective, asbestos was completely banned in the United Kingdom in 1999 – 15 years ago – and yet it continues to kill 13 people a day. In the United States that figure is more than doubled at nearly 30 people per day. How long will it take for that number to go down, especially when new asbestos is being imported every year?
Deaths from mesothelioma in the U.S tripled from 1988 to 2008 and health experts expect the mortality rate to peak around the year 2016. In an ideal world where asbestos is completely banned and no new material is coming into the country, the number of cancer deaths would peak, but then go down over time, eventually being reduced and perhaps even eliminated. With millions of pounds of new asbestos being shipped in every year however, mesothelioma death rates may plateau at their current, very high rate of nearly 3,000 people per year.
Despite these alarming statistics, mega corporations in the U.S. not only use asbestos, but they spend millions of dollars in lobbying members of Congress to fight asbestos from being banned. When American businesses can learn to stop placing profits before people, then the country can at least begin to heal from the industrial infection it has created. Until that day, the epidemic will continue to spread – one fiber, one worker, one family at a time.