Does that sound like a sensationalist headline for a blog post? Sadly, it’s not. This week is Asbestos Awareness Week and if you think that has nothing to do with you, you’re wrong.
Emily Walsh, the Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Alliance, reached out to me recently about raising awareness for the prevention of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos fibers. This cause is one that’s important to Emily for a very personal reason. In 2005, Emily’s friend Heather Von St. James was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. She was 36 years old. Three months earlier, she had given birth to her daughter, Lily Rose.
Heather was given 15 months to live.
Image via NAVFAC/Flickr
Asbestos is a silicate mineral that became a popular building material in the late 19th-Century, because it seemed too good to be true. It was fire resistant. It was chemical resistant, heat resistant. It was sound absorbing and strong. But best of all, it was CHEAP. Unfortunately, it was also deadly. Mesothelioma is a cancer caused only by inhaling carcinogenic asbestos fibers, which become lodged in the lungs. Asbestos fibers can be too small for the human eye to detect.
There are few countries in the world left in which asbestos is legal to use in any form. The United States and Canada are two of them. That’s right, this deadly substance which is banned in many other countries – my home country of Australia among them – is still legal here in North America. (While Canada was still responsible until recently for 9% of the world’s asbestos mining, an election promise to stop mining was kept in 2012).
According to Chris Walker, a Senior Environmental Consultant with more than 20 years experience in the asbestos industry, the simple reason asbestos has not yet been banned in the US is money. He explains that as far back as the early 1900s, companies involved in the production of asbestos products, like W.R. Grace, were aware of the health dangers of exposure, but didn’t want to risk their business, describing them as “criminals with deep pockets.” It’s not just that asbestos is economical – a total ban on asbestos in the US would open up insulation and tiling companies, among others, to class-action lawsuits.
Still think asbestos has nothing to do with you?
You can still buy products like roofing products and floor tile which are made with asbestos from big box home stores in the US.
Asbestos has been used in over 3,000 consumer products in the US, including items like toasters and hair dryers, some of which may still be in use, or available for sale.
If you’re renovating or repairing a home, you should be aware of the possibility of asbestos being present in insulation, flooring, pipes and roofing.
Wearing a mask is NOT enough. Asbestos fibers can stay airborne for up to 72 hours with NO air movement.
Heather Von St. James was one of the lucky few who survive diagnoses of mesothelioma. Her dad worked in construction and would come home from worksites with his clothes covered in a white dust. That was Heather’s exposure, as a child. Many people exposed to asbestos do not develop mesothelioma, but she was one of the unlucky few for whom exposure proved life-threatening.
Now, Heather is trying to spread the message of hope for those diagnosed with this completely preventable and usually fatal form of cancer.
Here’s how you can help:
Check out the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance page and click on one of their social sharing buttons to spread the word about asbestos awareness.
Make a donation to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) here, a non-profit dedicated to preventing asbestos exposure and aiding asbestos victims.
Sign one of the Global Petitions to ban asbestos here.
Write to your local congressman or congresswoman to add your support for a US ban on asbestos.
On a personal note, I’m devoting this blog post to the dangers of asbestos today, because my dad is an electrician and a builder. He remembers working in places where he wasn’t sure if he was being exposed to asbestos. My dad is lucky that he didn’t develop mesothelioma, but even the fact he knew he was at risk, but couldn’t do anything about it, is frightening. The reality that this deadly material is still being used today is incomprehensible. Thanks for reading and please spread the word!