In the years before representing Chattanooga in the Tennessee General Assembly, Ray Albright helped renovate and repair old buildings in town. For nearly 2 decades, Albright cut boiler covers — and breathed in dust containing the deadly mineral asbestos.
At the time, Albright was unaware the dust contained asbestos. “It was so thick, you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you,” he says. Now, decades later, the former state senator has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a disease caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Like many retired workers of high-risk occupations, Albright has had precious time stolen from him. Doctors estimate he now has 6 months to live.
Renovating Old Buildings Can Cause Serious Harm
Chattanooga is a city known for its revitalization and renovation of old buildings. Behind each of these renovation projects are countless men and women who worked in various roles of construction: sanders, welders, pipefitters, electricians, and general contractors. Given the unsafe working conditions former senator Albright speaks of — and the long latency period of asbestos-related disease symptoms — it is likely that there will be many asbestos victims to come in the city of Chattanooga.
Unfortunately, Chattanooga is not unique when it comes to this issue. Nationwide, public schools and libraries still contain dangerous levels of asbestos. In fact, even elementary school teachers are known to develop mesothelioma at a higher rate than other American workers in less-hazardous working conditions.
When it comes to revitalization of cities, the problem is two-fold. Renovation of old structures can be helpful in removing dangerous asbestos — if construction is done carefully, safely, and in accordance with the law. On the other hand, renovation can also cause asbestos to be released into the air, and can therefore inflict more harm.
Did Corporations Hide the Danger?
Although Albright and others like him did not know of the dangers at the time of their exposure, it is more than likely that the corporations involved did. Albright is not alone in expressing his frustration over this. He says: “Asbestos was the cause of this. And, you don’t know it, but forty years later, you find out what you were exposed to was extremely dangerous.”
The former state senator is correct in believing that corporations are to blame. For decades, corporations intentionally hid the dangers of asbestos from the public. In fact, years ago, when Albright worked in construction, the science behind asbestos was already known. The decision by corporations to conceal this from workers is downright appalling.
The corrupt influence of corporations doesn’t stop there. In recent years, business interests have continued to infiltrate and influence politics and public policy, and have further victimized those suffering from asbestos exposure. Even though more than 50 countries have banned asbestos worldwide, recent and long-overdue updates to the chemical safety bill in the U.S. fail to follow suit.
Thousands of Victims Each Year in U.S. Alone
For every well-known public figure, such as senator Albright, who become victims of this corruption, we are reminded that there are countless more who go publically unrecognized. The numbers are staggering. Some estimates say that asbestos kills between 12,000 – 15,000 Americans each year. Each of these deaths was unnecessary.
For former state senator Albright, progress in the fight against asbestos will come too late — but for others, for those currently in unsafe working conditions, or for those who work and live in unsafe buildings, maintaining this dialogue about toxic corporate corruption is extremely important. The business interests behind asbestos use are strong — but, together, the American public is much stronger. There is hope if we choose to engage with it. There is hope if we stand up for what is right.