Les Skramstad. Jack Davis. Bob Wheelis. Three names that have, or may soon, become statistics at the behest of asbestos. (Skramstad), as you may have read, lost his battle with asbestosis. Jack and Bob are sick with mesothelioma, and there are thousands like them. But more than simply names on a ledger, these names represent real people, with families and friends and responsibilities.
And death sentences.
All they did was go to work, attempting to make an honest day's wage toiling for their employer. Like we all do. And we trust our employer to provide a safe working environment.
However, with asbestos–and the companies that knowingly allowed workers to toil in a toxic environment–safety took a back seat. Profit margins and the bottom line ruled. The proverbial blind eye was turned to everything else.
It's unfathomable to think that the use of asbestos was so widespread, given that links to asbestos exposure and mesothelioma have been known since as far back as the turn of the previous century. Yes, we're talking 1900s here. And the first lawsuit was filed in 1929, claiming asbestos as the culprit for illness.
And yet, asbestos use continued unabated. It showed up in wallboard, as insulation, as a fire retardant. Ceiling tiles and flooring. Automotive brake components, to this day, are still manufactured using asbestos.
The frustratingly long incubation period for airborne asbestos fibers inhaled and lingering in the body for years doesn't help. From the time of initial asbestos exposure, to the first appearance of mesothelioma, 20 to 50 years can pass. As a result, workers have toiled for decades in an unsafe environment without any clue as to the silent killer poised within their bodies, slowly building strength. With no outward sign of disease or difficulty exhibited by workers, employers were lulled into a false sense of security.
The world has finally awaken to the menace of asbestos, however. Regulations governing its use, and exposure for workers were beefed up in the 1970s, and areas where people might become exposed, such as schools and public buildings, were cleaned up. Some buildings that could not be rehabilitated were demolished.
And the war on asbestos has turned global, with outright bans on the toxic product enacted in Australia and the European union. Japan is also expected to enact an outright ban at some future date.
As for the US, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a ban on asbestos use several years ago, but the ban was turned over in the courts. In the interim some manufacturers have found asbestos alternatives, and asbestos use has been mitigated.
There are continuing efforts to somehow enact a complete ban. In the meantime, asbestos not only remains in our midst, but also remains a hazard for thousands of workers who continue to toil around the stuff.
Building clean up, for example.
Somebody has to do the dirty job of removing the asbestos from old pipes, and other areas of a structure in the throes of rehabilitation. Companies that specialize in this kind of cleanup are most likely to ensure that their workers are reasonably protected from inhaling toxic fibers. However, not all employers attain this degree of expertise. Small, independent contractors, for example, employ casual labour in the renovations of older homes, where asbestos is mostly likely to be found. Many of these workers are not adequately protected from airborne fibers and particles. Asbestos becomes increasingly toxic, whenever it is disturbed.
Hence, the worker breathes it in. And the worker takes the fibers home on his clothes. They're in the car; they enter the house when he does. Suddenly the entire family is exposed. The man's wife comes into contact when she does the laundry.
This is the cost, and the story of asbestos in human terms. People named Les, and Jack, and Bob. And their families. Their wives, their kids and their friends. Sometimes the entire community.
Les Skramstad worked for a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana-a facility that manufactured a form of insulation containing asbestos that was subsequently used in 35 million homes across the United States. Skramstad, after a lifetime of working at the mine, was diagnosed and subsequently died of asbestos-related disease, as did 130 of his colleagues. While he was alive, Skramstad blew the whistle on the company, which was eventually closed. But not before it was spewing 5,000 pounds of asbestos a day into the air, dust which drifted for 30 miles.
In Libby, there have been 295 deaths reported from asbestos illness. Not all those people worked for W.R. Grace, the company that owned the mine. Some just lived in the town, going out for walks and eating their dinner like everybody else. And asbestos killed them, at a rate 40-60 times the national average for the small town of 2700. A town–like a lot of people exposed to asbestos–with a death sentence.
Given that asbestos is still around, either in goods currently manufactured, or lurking in old buildings, it is incumbent upon the companies, corporations and employers to ensure that workers, their families and their communities are not exposed.
There is a price to be paid for complacency. For W.R. Grace in Montana, that price was tens of millions of dollars paid out in personal settlements.
For people like Les, Jack Bob and their families, the price they pay is incalculable.