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United States faces Third Wave of asbestos disease

United States faces Third Wave of asbestos disease

Twenty-five years ago, a group of scientists, union officials and doctors met to discuss asbestos disease. The 1990 convention recognized that while some of the threat of asbestos exposure had been reduced due to regulations put in place decades ago, a looming danger remained.

Initially, asbestos affected those who mined the substance and worked with it in steel mills and power plants. Eventually it moved on to those who worked with asbestos products like insulation and on ships. Those who attended the conference agreed this wasn’t the end of asbestos-related deaths. Instead, they predicted the third wave of released asbestos from pipes, tiles and brakes, causing death again.

While the Environmental Production Agency banned some asbestos products, 400 metric tons of the fibrous carcinogen were consumed last year. Consumption may have been reduced significantly since the 1970s, but asbestos is still present.

In September 2014, the truth became a hard reality for construction worker Kris Penny. Intense stomach pain led to Penny’s hospitalization and eventual peritoneal mesothelioma diagnosis. This type of mesothelioma accounts for less than 30 percent of all cases and affects the peritoneum, or abdominal lining.

More than a decade prior, Penny worked on a contract with BellSouth, now AT&T, to pull fiber optic cables through cement conduit runs. The process involved shooting bursts of condensed air to push the string between manholes. Doing this released significant amounts of dust that often forced the workers out of the manholes.

BellSouth never informed them the pipes were asbestos cement. The company gave warnings to its own employees to avoid compressed air unless it was wetted down, but failed to pass it along to the company that employed Penny.

This isn’t an isolated incident. The Communication Workers of America believe telecommunications workers are at a similar risk due to the presence of asbestos-cement conduits. Another case last year found a Verizon crew working with pipes containing 35 percent asbestos.

Many wait decades to learn of their mesothelioma diagnosis. Even the smallest amount of exposure can lead to an asbestos-related disease. In Penny’s case, the diagnosis came many years earlier than most. He underwent chemotherapy and surgery to treat the disease, but there is no cure.

The third wave looms as companies are sued for illegal asbestos removal and fabricating results. Many contractors cut corners in the removal process to save money with no concern about saving lives.

Time will continue to tell the deadly impact of asbestos on the United States.

  • Jameel & J. Morris, “America’s ‘third wave’ of asbestos disease upends lives,” NPR-Center for Public Integrity (Dec. 17, 2015). [Link]