Asbestos is a natural mineral that is found on just about every continent. It is still mined in some countries, including Canada and Russia, but others have outlawed mining of asbestos. It is a highly fibrous mineral with long, thin, separable fibers that can be spun together to create valuable heat-resistant properties to be used in insulation and other products. Studies estimate that there are more than 3,000 different types of commercial products that include asbestos. The mineral itself is not harmful, as long as it is intact. But when it is damaged and fibers become airborne, it can have harmful health effects.
Since the 1980’s asbestos use has dropped. But the 4.5 million people who worked in U.S shipyards during World War II have been the greatest group of individuals at risk. Well known as an excellent fire retardant and heat insulator, asbestos was used for insulating boilers, steam pipes, and hot water pipes in ships. Shipyard workers were exposed to what is known as “friable asbestos”. When it can be crumbled and released into the air, breathing asbestos fibers will stay in the body and cannot be expelled.
Our family lost a member to mesothelioma this past year. She had worked in the shipyards back in the ‘40’s, running electrical wiring in the interiors of warships, during WW II. About seven years before her death, she developed some respiratory symptoms. Her doctors attributed it to heart failure, which she was prone to have due to a heart attack many years earlier. About six months before she died, she was experiencing particularly acute respiratory distress. This time, her chest x-ray showed something very suspicious. Her doctor thought it might be some sort of cancer. She specifically referred to it as “sheet like” infiltration. She was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, which eventually results in the form of cancerous tumors, particularly on the mesothelium (lining of the lungs). Mesothelioma usually takes decades to surface. In her case, it took several decades; however, her pain and suffering was not diminished.
In our next segment, we will talk about removal/abatement of asbestos: whether it is hiding in your home or school, how to contact the proper authorities, and use of proper tools, personal protective equipment, including breathing protection.