Killer Dust: Why Asbestos is still killing people


mentalfloss
+1
#1


Killer dust

Why is asbestos still killing people? Nic Fleming finds out in a twisting tale of industry cover-ups and misinformation that spans decades.

A long vertical pipe sits against white-painted brickwork in the corner of a cramped storeroom. Two men wearing orange boiler suits and gloves crouch at its base. One uses a scraper to remove lumps of what looks like wet papier-mâché from the outside of the pipe, into a red bag held by the other.

Both men are breathing through facemasks, their air sucked from outside the isolation unit: a short, makeshift corridor constructed from black plastic panels and transparent polythene sheeting. An extractor fan hums relentlessly.

It might look like a scene from a horror movie in which scientists fight to contain a virus, but the truth is more banal – though no less deadly. The two men are removing asbestos insulation from a heating pipe in a west London hospital.

Ordinarily there would be bright yellow tape with the words “WARNING asbestos” on it, the site supervisor tells me. But this is an especially sensitive job. The neighbouring ward’s beds are filled by patients with acute respiratory conditions, and the hospital’s management decided that advertising the true nature of the work might cause alarm.

Thirteen people a day in the UK die from exposure to asbestos – more than double the number that die on the roads. In the USA, asbestos will be responsible for around 10,000 deaths this year, meaning it kills close to as many people as gun crime or skin cancer.

Health fears associated with asbestos were first raised at the end of the 19th century. Asbestosis, an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that causes shortness of breath, coughing and other lung damage, was described in medical literature in the 1920s. By the mid-1950s, when the first epidemiological study of asbestos-related lung cancer was published, the link to fatal disease was well established.

Yet in 2012, rather than falling, worldwide asbestos production increased and international exports surged by 20 per cent. A full ban did not come into force in the UK until 1999, and the European Union’s deadline for member states to end its use was just nine years ago. Today, asbestos is still used in large quantities in many parts of Asia, eastern Europe and South America, while even in the USA and Canada, controlled use is allowed.

The remarkable endurance of this magic mineral turned deadly dust is a complex tale. One of scientific deception and betrayal, greed, political collusion, the power of propaganda, and, above all, the willingness of some executives to knowingly subject hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people around the world to severe illness and even death in the pursuit of profit.

Living proof

One man for whom the risks of asbestos are all too clear is Winston Bish. Two years ago the former carpenter, now aged 70, took part in a questionnaire study on lung health. Among the half of participants randomly selected to have a CT scan, he was subsequently diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare cancer that develops in the protective linings of organs, most commonly the lungs. There is no cure.

“When the doctor said ‘mesothelioma’, I didn't really know what it was,” says Bish in a hoarse whisper, caused by cancer-related nerve damage to his vocal cords. “Now I know it's the worst form of lung cancer you can get.”

As a boy, Bish was good with his hands and used to stay behind after class for extra woodwork lessons. He left school at 15 and spent his working life in the building industry. He had frequent contact with asbestos in a variety of forms, including in guttering and roof panels.

“We were cutting those up from sheets with handsaws and knocking nails into them,” Bish says. None of his employers warned him or his co-workers of the dangers of working with asbestos, and doing such work without facemasks or ventilators was commonplace, he says. It’s a far cry from the precautions taken by specialist asbestos removal teams today.

Bish and his wife Jennifer married in 1966 and had two children. In the mid-1970s, he built a four-bedroomed detached house on the outskirts of St Ives, Cambridgeshire, as the family’s home. As was normal practice at the time, he put asbestos fireproofing panels in the garage roof – they are still there.

It was not until the 1980s that Bish remembers fears about asbestos spreading among building workers. “We became aware through word of mouth in the industry,” he says. “I don’t remember any big advertising campaigns at that time. Even now there is very little awareness.”

In October 2012, he had the lining of his right lung removed surgically, and now lives with the knowledge that the survival rates for mesothelioma patients are poor. Only about four out of every ten people diagnosed are still alive a year later, although the outlook is better for those able to have surgery to remove the cancer. Bish has recently completed a course of chemotherapy, and is hoping to be enrolled in a trial of a novel drug.

Magic minerals

Asbestos is a generic term used to describe six naturally occurring minerals made up of thin fibrous crystals. Chrysotile, or white asbestos, is the only form still in use, and accounts for 95 per cent of the asbestos mined and used by humans historically. Its curly fibres make it more flexible than a family of five other forms known as the amphiboles – amosite (brown asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos), anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite – which all consist of needle-like fibres.

The characteristics of asbestos – strong, lightweight and heat-resistant – and the fact it could be split into fibres, mixed with other materials and easily shaped meant that use of the mineral soon caught on. Large-scale mining began in the second half of the 19th century in the USA, Italy and Canada, and during the 20th century it was incorporated into a huge variety of products, especially building materials such as concrete, pipes, cement, bricks, tiles and insulation for buildings and ships. It was also used in car parts, protective clothing, mattresses and even cigarette filters. The industry significantly expanded during both World Wars.

You may not have to look hard to find asbestos where you live or work. Many buildings still have asbestos-based components, including pipe insulation, decorative coatings, ceiling boards, fireproofing panels, window in-fill panels and cold water tanks.

Research into precisely how asbestos causes mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer is ongoing. The fibres are so small that most can only be seen under a microscope. Billions can be inhaled in a single day with no immediate effect, but longer-term the consequences can be deadly.

The fibres can become lodged in the lining of organs such as the lungs, causing damage that interrupts the normal cell cycle, leading to uncontrollable cell division and tumour growth. Asbestos is also linked to changes in the membranes surrounding the lungs – the pleura – including pleural thickening, the formation of scar tissue (plaques), and abnormal collections of fluid (pleural effusion).

“There is absolutely no doubt that all kinds [of asbestos] can give rise to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma,” says Paul Cullinan, Professor of Occupational and Environmental Respiratory Disease at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London. “It’s probably the case that white asbestos is less toxic in respect to mesothelioma than the amphiboles. The industry tries to argue that you can take precautions so that white asbestos can be used safely, but in practice, in the real world, that is not what is going to happen.”

This is the firm scientific consensus. But not everyone agrees.

“The Canadian government does not support the science on asbestos,” says leading anti-asbestos campaigner Kathleen Ruff. “It has not banned asbestos in Canada. We still import thousands of products that contain asbestos. Those in government oppose the views of the whole Canadian and world scientific community,” says Ruff. “They are not stupid, so I can only conclude it’s cynically done for political expediency.

“The industry has hired scientists in the same way the tobacco industry did, who claim the risks are not there,” says Ruff. “Their research has been used to delay action to protect people from asbestos and to prevent it being banned. Many have been exposed and have died as a result. There’s no doubt it’s been very lucrative for those scientists who have gone down that path. But it’s also a complete betrayal of scientific independence and integrity, and of their responsibility as human beings not to harm others.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die every year as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive puts the figure at about 4,700: in 2011, 2,300 British people died from mesothelioma, 2,000 from other related lung cancers and 400 from asbestosis. Tradespeople are at particularly high risk.

Attempts to calculate likely future deaths have produced widely varying results over the years, partly because the greatest risks of developing mesothelioma come between 30 and 50 years after exposure. A 2010 study predicted that 61,000 men in the UK will die of mesothelioma between 2007 and 2050 – compared with 30,000 between 1968 and 2007. The peak year for mortality was predicted to be 2016.

While most cases occur among those who work directly with materials containing asbestos, others become sick through more casual environmental exposure. In 2004 it was reported that hospital workers and school teachers ranked fourth and eighth respectively in a list of the most frequently cited occupations on mesothelioma death certificates, and that a quarter of US deaths from the disease occurred in those who had not worked directly with it.

Some healthcare workers report that this proportion may be growing. Liz Darlison is a consultant nurse at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust and a founder of Mesothelioma UK, which provides information and support for patients.

“It is still predominantly carpenters, joiners, laggers,” says Darlison. “But those of us who work with this disease are fearful because increasingly we are seeing more women and more people who've had casual exposure such as teachers, doctors, nurses, secretaries, and people who have sat on the knee of a dad who has worked with asbestos.”

Killer dust | Mosaic
Last edited by mentalfloss; Mar 26th, 2014 at 09:37 AM..
 
EagleSmack
+1
#2
Because they used Asbestos everywhere. It is still in many buildings and the people that worked around it or with it without protection are still alive.

Once you are exposed to it and inhale it then it is in you for life.

It will continue to kill people as long as it is still used and around.
 
lone wolf
Free Thinker
+1
#3
Until there is a better option, I suspect the asbestos market will remain strong. Someone's always going to cut corners in the name of profit
 
EagleSmack
+1
#4
And... I have skin in the game here.

I've been exposed. I was working in steam tunnels in Boston and we broke a number of asbestos pipes when I was young and knew nothing about the dangers of it. Big breaks too. Long story but there it is.

My father also suffers from a lung disease (pulmonary fibrosis) that can be caused by it and he worked around it for many years. There are many causes of that disease but asbestos fibers is one cause and he is a non-smoker.
 
lone wolf
Free Thinker
+1
#5
I know (and knew) a few people who worked around asbestos. It's not a pretty thing. If I've been exposed, it wasn't for long. I drove off a jobsite where dust hung thick over demolition debris from an old factory where they made brake shoes. The next day, it was being wetted down - and I was unemployed (for about an hour or so)
 
Spade
Free Thinker
+2
#6  Top Rated Post
Asbestos is still in the stippled ceilings of numerous schools throughout Canada.
 
EagleSmack
#7
Quote: Originally Posted by SpadeView Post

Asbestos is still in the stippled ceilings of numerous schools throughout Canada.

It is everywhere. Steam Tunnels, ceilings, tiles... the list goes on.

Quote: Originally Posted by lone wolfView Post

I know (and knew) a few people who worked around asbestos. It's not a pretty thing. If I've been exposed, it wasn't for long. I drove off a jobsite where dust hung thick over demolition debris from an old factory where they made brake shoes. The next day, it was being wetted down - and I was unemployed (for about an hour or so)

Good man having them wet the place down. And if the old factory wasn't abated first that dust cloud was filled with asbestos fibers.
 
Spade
Free Thinker
#8
Brake linings; test for fibres near any intersection. Then, hold your breath while taking readings.
 
petros
+1
#9
Quote: Originally Posted by EagleSmackView Post

It is everywhere. Steam Tunnels, ceilings, tiles... the list goes on.

I have a friend dying from Mesothelioma. He was an electrician working along side piping and asbestos T-Bar ceiling tiles and insulated attics etc. He's only 48. Started working long after the asbestos ban
.
 
EagleSmack
+1
#10
Quote: Originally Posted by petrosView Post

I have a friend dying from Mesothelioma. He was an electrician working along side piping and asbestos T-Bar ceiling tiles and insulated attics etc. He's only 48. Started working long after the asbestos ban
.

An electrician... as was my father.

I was a phone worker in my younger days and my exposure came while installing heavy copper phone cable through these steam tunnels. We were unknowingly running across asbestos covered steam pipes and compromised many of them. Long after the ban on asbestos as well. But building owners are allowed to keep asbestos materials in place as long as they are not disturbed. We just didn't know what they were.

Sorry about your friend. It is a horrible way to go.
 
petros
+1
#11
It is a horrible way to go. Silicosis is too and it's pretty common amongst hard rock miners.
 
EagleSmack
#12
Quote: Originally Posted by petrosView Post

It is a horrible way to go. Silicosis is too and it's pretty common amongst hard rock miners.

That is black lung right? Coal miners disease?
 
lone wolf
Free Thinker
#13
Then there's farmer's lung - all dust related
 
EagleSmack
#14
Quote: Originally Posted by lone wolfView Post

Then there's farmer's lung - all dust related

Same types of diseases?
 
lone wolf
Free Thinker
#15
Quote: Originally Posted by EagleSmackView Post

Same types of diseases?

All I could tell you is hacking your lungs up, loss of weight and gasping for breath is common to them all.
 
Tecumsehsbones
#16
Quote: Originally Posted by EagleSmackView Post

That is black lung right? Coal miners disease?

Similar, not quite the same. Getting your lungs full of dust will eventually kill you. Asbestosis is "worse" in some ways, though. The fibres tend to be hook-shaped and jagged. They literally tear your lungs apart.

I put "worse" in quotes because I'm not sure there are better and worse ways to cough out your life because your employer couldn't be bothered to provide you with proper equipment.
 
EagleSmack
#17
Quote: Originally Posted by TecumsehsbonesView Post

Similar, not quite the same. Getting your lungs full of dust will eventually kill you. Asbestosis is "worse" in some ways, though. The fibres tend to be hook-shaped and jagged. They literally tear your lungs apart.

They are hooked. They don't necessarily tear your lungs out but... if I can remember the training (long after exposure) the crystals get lodged and stay lodged. Then are attacked by the body's defenses and cannot be dislodged. Causing scarring and if your body really responds harshly Mesothelioma happens.

What a bleeping shame...



Quote:

I put "worse" in quotes because I'm not sure there are better and worse ways to cough out your life because your employer couldn't be bothered to provide you with proper equipment.

They could not be bothered in my case. When it came out that we were exposed they sent out paint respirators. Stupid us.
 
Tecumsehsbones
+1
#18
I hope you dodge the bullet, Eagle. Seriously, man.
 
EagleSmack
#19
Quote: Originally Posted by TecumsehsbonesView Post

I hope you dodge the bullet, Eagle. Seriously, man.

Me too!

It wasn't till years later when I was sent to asbestos awareness training that I realized how stupid we were to keep working in that environment unprotected. But we were young and ignorant to the dangers of it. We knew it was bad stuff... we had no idea that it may come back and kill us. I had no idea that it only takes one exposure.

The Doctor that gave the medical part of the training was great. He knew how to teach a class. His field was asbestos related diseases and lung cancer. Near the end of the training he asked us....

"Now why do you think I work in this field and why am I called on to speak to you all? Why is my passion here? Because as an undergrad and med student I worked in the shipyards removing asbestos coverings..."

Well you get the idea. He ingested large doses of the stuff.
 
#juan
No Party Affiliation
#20
I just read that the province of Quebec supplies three quarter of the world's asbestos. We should be very ashamed of this.....ashamed enough to put an immediate stop to it.
 
lone wolf
Free Thinker
#21
Quote: Originally Posted by #juanView Post

I just read that the province of Quebec supplies three quarter of the world's asbestos. We should be very ashamed of this.....ashamed enough to put an immediate stop to it.

Any guesses why that's not likely to happen? From 2011:

Harper marks Quebec holiday in asbestos region - Montreal - CBC News
 
Sparrow
+1
#22
Quote: Originally Posted by EagleSmackView Post

They are hooked. They don't necessarily tear your lungs out but... if I can remember the training (long after exposure) the crystals get lodged and stay lodged. Then are attacked by the body's defenses and cannot be dislodged. Causing scarring and if your body really responds harshly Mesothelioma happens.

What a bleeping shame...



They could not be bothered in my case. When it came out that we were exposed they sent out paint respirators. Stupid us.

This is asbestos exclusively mined in Africa. It makes your lungs look like porcupines. This was used as an additive to North American asbestos, that is were the problems comes in.

Quote: Originally Posted by lone wolfView Post

Any guesses why that's not likely to happen? From 2011:

Harper marks Quebec holiday in asbestos region - Montreal - CBC News

You are behind in the news, all the mines are closed in Quebec.

Could you please answer an question? Why are more people dying of asbestos related lung disease then right here where it was mined for over 100 years. Because it was mixed with the guess what?
 
lone wolf
Free Thinker
#23
Quote: Originally Posted by SparrowView Post

You are behind in the news, all the mines are closed in Quebec.

Could you please answer an question? Why are more people dying of asbestos related lung disease then right here where it was mined for over 100 years. Because it was mixed with the guess what?

I did specify "from 2011"

My best guess would be dust from the slag piles. Anything else would be just wild guessing on my part

A Conservative seat in PQ is a rare one....
 
EagleSmack
#24
I had to revive this thread. My father is in the hospital and after hearing the Doc explain an echo-cardiogram and explaining the calcification of his lungs due to asbestos exposure I thought what a waste.
 
lone wolf
Free Thinker
#25
Quote: Originally Posted by EagleSmackView Post

I had to revive this thread. My father is in the hospital and after hearing the Doc explain an echo-cardiogram and explaining the calcification of his lungs due to asbestos exposure I thought what a waste.

Sorry to see.... Watching sucks more than anything.
 
SLM
No Party Affiliation
+1
#26
Quote: Originally Posted by EagleSmackView Post

I had to revive this thread. My father is in the hospital and after hearing the Doc explain an echo-cardiogram and explaining the calcification of his lungs due to asbestos exposure I thought what a waste.

Damn, I'm so sorry to hear that.

I think we're at a place right now where most ordinary people have rudimentary knowledge of asbestos and the potential dangers. But unfortunately I still think we're seeing people developing illnesses from exposure during a time when the education wasn't so good.
 
spaminator
#27
Quote: Originally Posted by EagleSmackView Post

I had to revive this thread. My father is in the hospital and after hearing the Doc explain an echo-cardiogram and explaining the calcification of his lungs due to asbestos exposure I thought what a waste.

i'm sorry to hear that.
 
Grievous
No Party Affiliation
#28
Yet Canada still exports it's even the though the science says it's harmful....wonder why?


$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
 
EagleSmack
#29
Quote: Originally Posted by SLMView Post

Damn, I'm so sorry to hear that.

I think we're at a place right now where most ordinary people have rudimentary knowledge of asbestos and the potential dangers. But unfortunately I still think we're seeing people developing illnesses from exposure during a time when the education wasn't so good.


No doubt.
 
JLM
No Party Affiliation
#30
Quote: Originally Posted by #juanView Post

I just read that the province of Quebec supplies three quarter of the world's asbestos. We should be very ashamed of this.....ashamed enough to put an immediate stop to it.


Is ALL use of asbestos detrimental?
 

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