Philadelphia – Just like in a grainy 1940s film, the factory worker breathes in the asbestos-laden dust, while the corporate executive sits comfortably in his plush office, overseeing from 12 stories up. This is one example of the type of scenarios discussed at Saturday’s third annual Asbestos Awareness Day conference at the Drexel University College of Medicine Saturday.
A reported 90,000 people a year die in the U.S. from asbestos-caused diseases said Linda Reinstein, executive director and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. The expert said most Americans don’t understand the severity of asbestos in the workplace, because it is often ignored for decades before symptoms of disease surface.
Reinstein lost her husband to mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer. It can afflict the lungs, heart, throat, stomach, colon, kidney and larynx.
This disease, according to doctors at the conference, develops in the mesothelioma, a protective lining that covers most of the body’s internal organs. Its most common target is the outer lining of the lungs and the chest cavity.
Most people who develop mesothelioma work on jobs where they inhale asbestos particles or are exposed to asbestos dust and fiber.
Held under the auspices of the Drexel University School of Public Health and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), about 100 people turned out to listen to medical professionals, scientists, politicians and concerned citizens discuss the debilitating effects of the carcinogen.
“Like most Americans, people don’t know asbestos has not been banned, but its deadly diseases are all preventable,” Reinstein said.
She described kinds of afflictions often caused by asbestos, including malignant and benign diseases, citing a sum 65 percent of people exposed to asbestos develop cancerous cells in their body.
“It reduces the ability to breathe so it wreaks havoc on your heart and lungs, and lack of oxygen kills you, causing cardiac arrest,” she said.
People who have been exposed to asbestos can develop symptoms in a matter of days or a matter of years. Even those not in direct contact are at risk.
Reinstein used the example of New York City’s World Trade Center collapse. She said the nearly 400 tons of toxic dust that came down from the toppling could affect thousands of people years from now or tomorrow.
“It’s like you’re holding a ticking time bomb in your hands, wondering if you’re going to get sick or not,” she said.
Dr. Arthur L. Frank, chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel, has researched asbestos for more than 30 years.
He said asbestos is the largest killer of factory and construction-type workers of any substance in the world, second to tobacco. Similar to secondhand smoke, asbestos lingers on clothes and in the air for a significant time after initial exposure, jeopardizing the health of anyone who comes in contact with it. The demographic of those at the highest risk are workers of construction, on railroads and in shipyards.
“Asbestos causes more death than any other workplace cancer-causing disease,” Frank said. He said he works with groups of scientists and doctors to discuss sources of asbestos exposure, new methods for examining and treating patients, and reviewing standard therapies.
Asbestos has been around for more than a century, but of the 46 countries that ban it, the U.S. is not on that list.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007. The bill’s initiative is to ban all production and use of asbestos in the U.S., and to launch public education campaigns to raise awareness about its dangers. But funding is needed for the research and treatment of carcinogens caused by asbestos. If passed, the legislation would authorize additional studies to determine which commercial products today still contain asbestos, and would call for a national mesothelioma registry to help public health professionals track the disease.
Frank said one reason the federal government has not enacted a ban is because of corporate greed. Big development projects across the nation would be quickly squashed if an asbestos ban were put in place.
This year, Congress urged the surgeon general to issue warnings about asbestos and make the awareness occasion a week instead of a day.
Reinstein quoted an approximate 30 million buildings in the U.S. are contaminated with asbestos, including schools, offices and homes.
“The World Trade Center towers had 80 floors of laden product that went everywhere,” she said.
Jordan Zevon, national spokesperson for the ADAO said a problem is that most people take the “as long as its not in my backyard” kind of attitude toward asbestos.
“It’s not sexy or exciting to talk about asbestos, but we lose 90,000 people a year in the U.S. from these kind of diseases,” he said.
Zevon’s father, singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, died of mesothelioma, which jumpstarted his passion for addressing the awareness issue. His father was given three months to live but survived a year, although the cancer was extremely debilitating.
“The people actually working and running this country are dying of this disease. You don’t realize you could walk by a demolition project, take a breath, and 30 years from now you wonder why you have this crazy cancer.
“It’s like a corny old 40s movie where the working class guys die and the big companies get away with it.”
National Asbestos Awareness Week started yesterday and runs through Saturday. For more information on asbestos-causing cancers and treatments, go to www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org.