The Dangers of Asbestos
The World Health Organization doesn’t pull its punches “All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs).”
Asbestos fibres are so dangerous that 65 countries have banned it. And yet, in June 2018, Scott Pruitt, the disgraced head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, relaxed rules on the use of asbestos in America. Pruitt's boss heartily approves.
Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes that “Chemically, asbestos minerals are silicate compounds, meaning they contain atoms of silicon and oxygen in their molecular structure.”
Six naturally occurring minerals fall into the category of asbestos. The chrysotile type has long fibres that can be woven, which makes them suitable for many industrial applications.
“The fireproofing properties of asbestos made it essential to many industries such as the automobile, construction, manufacturing, power, and chemical industries. The U.S. armed forces also used asbestos to prevent fires in every branch of the military.”
The Mesothelioma Center
People who inhale asbestos fibres are at great risk of developing cancer. Tiny particles become trapped in the lungs where they build up and cause scarring. This leads to difficulty breathing and the development of cancerous tumours. Stomach, colorectal, and ovarian cancers may also be caused by exposure to asbestos.
Here’s the NCI again: “Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.”
According to the World Health Organization “Currently about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. In 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths …”
The Tragedy of Wittenoom
There’s a ghost town in Western Australia called Wittenoom. In the 1940s and ‘50s it was a bustling place, sustained by the riches of the asbestos taken out of the nearby mine.
It was a community of 20,000 people, but they were all sitting on a health time bomb. As The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports, “In the 1950s, Wittenoom’s streets were literally paved with asbestos.”
The danger of inhaling asbestos fibres was already known, but the miners were offered little protection.
They went home from their shifts covered in asbestos fibres thereby exposing family members. In 1961, the first worker was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer, from which he died. Eventually, more than 300 additional asbestos miners from Wittenoom died from the disease. And, their family members suffered as well.
In 1966, the Wittenoom mine was shut down and the town has been almost completely abandoned.
Dr. Jim McNulty is the former Commissioner for Health for the Government of Western Australia. In a 2011 report he wrote that “Asbestos mining at Wittenoom was the greatest occupational health and safety tragedy in Australia - comparable to the Chernobyl and Bhopal catastrophes …
“Sadly, a great many more people will continue to die or become disabled by asbestos-related diseases across Australia before the epidemic finally peaks. By 2020 the total deaths Australia wide due to asbestosis is estimated to climb as high as 45,000 with several thousand of these being attributed to exposure to Wittenoom alone.”
There’s a town in the Ural Mountains of Russia called Asbest and you don’t need to be a linguist to figure out what its economy is based upon.
However, it’s been going through some rough times. As the world has backed off from using asbestos, the Asbest mine has laid off about 1,000 of its 5,000 workers.
The company that operates the mine, Uralasbest “is reported to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin” (The Guardian). So it should come as no surprise to learn that the Russian government declares asbestos to be safe if used properly.
And, by an interesting coincidence, U.S. President Donald Trump feels the same way about asbestos. As Anna Nemtsova write in The Daily Beast “In 1997 Trump said in his book, The Art of the Comeback, that asbestos was ‘100 percent safe.’ ”
By relaxing its control over asbestos imports the U.S. government has created some new best friends in Russia. Uralasbest has published images on Facebook of skids of packaged asbestos stamped with a Donald Trump seal of approval. The seal carries the message “Trump backs us up,” and the Facebook post says “Donald is on our side.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “During 1999–2015, a total of 45,221 deaths with malignant mesothelioma mentioned on the death certificate as the underlying or contributing cause of death were reported in the United States, increasing from 2,479 deaths in 1999 to 2,597 in 2015.”
In 2005, Donald Trump spoke at a Congressional hearing looking into the collapse of the World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He offered the opinion that if the buildings had contained more asbestos they would not have caught fire and fallen. However, there was enough asbestos to cause concern for the health of workers recovering bodies from the pile of rubble.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo connected asbestos with a “sickness of the lungs” among slaves who wove the mineral’s fibres into cloth. At around the same time, the Roman historian and philosopher Pliny the Elder described how slaves in asbestos mines used animal membranes as respirators to protect themselves from asbestos fibres.
- “Asbestos.” International Programme on Chemical Safety, World Health Organization, undated.
- “Trump Wants to Make Asbestos Great Again.” Anna Nemtsova, The Daily Beast, August 15, 2018.
- “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute, undated.
- “Wittenoom: Tourists Urged to Stay Away From Asbestos Town.” Frances Mao, BBC News, July 13, 2018
- “Wittenoom: The Survivors of an Erased Town.” Melanie Garrick and Loretta Florance, ABC, November 17, 2016.
- “Asbestos: The Wittenoom Tragedy Reflections.” Dr. Jim McNulty, Government of Western Australia, 2011.
- “Russian Mining Firm Puts Trump’s Face on its Asbestos Products.” Oliver Milman, The Guardian, July 11, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor