Asbestos, the Dust of Death
A shipyard pipefitter looks at killer asbestos
By Arthur J. Miller
A machine; a lifeless construction that is made to perform tasks for whomever operates it. The machine has no soul; it has no heart; no spirit. It does not feel pain when it is abused. It does not laugh at humor, nor does it cry when it is sad. It has no hopes, or desires and it does not dream of better things. It does not feel protective of a child. It has no love of family. It does not care who operates it, woman or man, people of different races, national origins, religions or politics. The machine is incapable of having any concerns, for it is beyond its ability to care.
To the employers the machine is a wonderful thing. It does not question social arrangements. It does not rebel against its owners. The machine does not talk to the other machines, and organize together to dump the bosses off their backs. The machine has its place and never asks for something better. If only workers could be more like machines, all employers fantasize. Both the machine and the worker have the same purpose to the employers, and that is to work to produce wealth.
Working folks are different than machines, for they have life and personal interests. Yet, employers think better of their machines than they do their employees. That is because the employers own the machines while they only own the workers production. The worker may get sick or injured, or for some other reason the function of producing might be hindered. Then a new worker is found to take up the production. Since the machine is a capital investment, the employer cares about the well-being of the machine and will try to maintain it to get as much production out of it as possible. Whereas, the worker can be replaced and no concern is needed.
Some of you reading my words may think that I am being more than just a little harsh on the employers; some may even say that they had a nice boss once who did care about them. To that sentiment I point out that every employer benefits from the social/economic system of exploitation and profits. So, while every employer gains from the system, they are also responsible for the effects of that system. The effects of this system include outright murder for profit. If the employers cared about their workers as much as they do their machines, then the story I am about to tell would not be possible, for it could not have happened and it could not continue today.
This story is about asbestos. I know of no better example of how far the employers are willing to go, even to the point of outright endangering workers lives, in their pursuit of wealth. Most industrial employers have weekly safety meetings. These so-called safety meetings are mostly a waste of time because they do not deal with real safety issues.
At one safety meeting a man from our union came to talk to us about asbestos. He gave a two-minute talk on the subject. He spoke of the unions concern over the health risks caused by asbestos among marine pipefitters and stated that if any of us had any questions we should contact the union. He gave us very little information on why the union was concerned.
What his talk did for me was to create an awareness that there was some type of serious problem because the union never came to our safety meetings. Having been around a bit, I knew that we were not getting the complete story. I decided then that, when I had the time, I would do some research on asbestos.
Then one day, while watching TV at a friends home, a public service announcement came on from the government dealing with asbestos. The government was asking every pipe-fitter who had worked on ships for longer than ten years to get a checkup by a doctor. To say the least, this was a big wake up call. What was once something I would look into some day became something I had to look into immediately.
One of the first things I read about was the governments research project on pipefitters at a Baltimore shipyard. They found that of those pipefitters who had worked there over ten years, 56 percent had lung damage. On ships asbestos was used in the lagging on boilers and steam pipes, and it can be found in the ventilation system. In new construction of U.S. ships asbestos has almost been eliminated, but on older ships and on ships that dont have a U.S. flag, asbestos is still being used.
Not just pipefitters are exposed to asbestos. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfares statistics estimate that between 4 million to 8 million American workers may die of asbestos related diseases. The government also acknowledges that 10 to 15 percent of all cancer deaths have a direct link to asbestos. The most common asbestos caused cancer is lung cancer; one out of every three asbestos workers dies of this disease.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the membrane lining in the chest and abdomen. The only direct cause of this type of cancer that has been found is asbestos. Then there is gastro-intestinal cancer. This cancer affects the stomach, large intestine and rectum, and is caused by the presence of asbestos fibers in the lining of the gastro-intestinal tract. Asbestos is ingested along with foods and liquids. The fibers that are trapped in the upper part of the lungs. These fibers are carried by the mucus of the lungs to the back of the throat then reach the stomach when swallowed. They also serve as a direct link between asbestos and laryngeal (throat) cancer.
If this is not bad enough, asbestos also causes a breathing disease called asbestosis (white-lung disease), a scarring of the lungs due to exposure to asbestos fibers. This disease is similar to silicosis experienced by hard rock miners and Black Lung, which kills coal miners. As the scarring becomes more extensive, the victims lungs lose flexibility and breathing becomes difficult. In time the victim slowly suffocates to death. Some of the lucky victims face a quicker death from failure of the right side of the heart because the asbestos-scarred lungs cannot provide enough oxygen.
Many household products laced with asbestos
Asbestos is a mineral that the profiteers have found many uses for. It is heat resistant, corrosion resistant and because it is a fibrous material it is very flexible and can be woven together with other fibers. Asbestos is also nearly indestructible.
The following are some of the consumer products that may contain asbestos: aprons, arm protectors, bags, blankets, locks, boards and shingles, bonded pipe, brake linings, capsand a very long list of other household and industrial products.
Yes, dear friends, the bosses are here to serve your every asbestos need. If none of these products will give you your share of asbestos exposure, the profiteers have made it more convenient; you may have your asbestos for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in your leisure drinking time. The orange juice that you drink and the vitamin tablet that you take with it, may very well have been filtered through asbestos filters. Many vegetable oils, sugars, fruit juices, and some alcoholic beverages, including 60 percent of European wines are filtered through asbestos filters.
And if this is not good enough for you, the drinking water in most of the U.S. and Canadian cities is contaminated because of asbestos cement pipes and the asbestos cement lined reservoirs. One government study found that one-third of all the drugs tested at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1973 had asbestos in them.
There is no safe level of asbestos in the body; this means that just one exposure of asbestos can lead to your death! Asbestos is such a potent carcinogen that families of asbestos workers have gotten cancer through exposure to the workers dirty clothes. Not only can asbestos directly cause cancer, but it can also aid other carcinogens in doing their dirty work within your body. Where asbestos fibers attach themselves in your body they collect other substances rather than letting them filter through the body.
Are you beginning to understand why one out of every four Americans will have cancer in their lives? And why 96 percent of all cancer comes from what we put into our bodies?
Unfortunately, the story does not end here. There are over 3,000 products made of, or with asbestos. In 1976 (the latest study that I found) over 750,000 short tons of asbestos were virtually poured into the environment in the U.S. alone.
Brake linings are 33 percent to 73 percent by weight asbestos. That means every time you stop your car you are releasing asbestos into the air. One study estimated that in 1970 the emission level of asbestos from brake linings for that year was 72 tons in the U.S. alone. The increase in miles driven today compared to 1970 means an equal increase in the emissions of asbestos.
Get rid of asbestos: Good, but how?
In the 1970s asbestos was banned from building construction material, but many buildings and homes built before the ban contain asbestos. In one study of nineteen buildings they found asbestos levels, in the air, ranging from one thousand fibers per cubic meter of air to about 100,000 fibers per cubic meter of air. Asbestos may be found in the cement structure itself, or in paneling for walls and the ceilings. Fresh air systems often circulate right over sprayed on asbestos, picking it up and dispersing it in the air throughout a building. Millions of office workers every working day breath air that is contaminated with asbestos.
A librarian in Lander, Wyoming became suspicious of a layer of dust covering furniture throughout the school. The dust turned out to include asbestos, which had fallen from deteriorating ceilings that had been sprayed with asbestos insulation. The school was closed down in April of 1972, and its discovery sparked investigation of schools throughout the U.S. and Canada. The investigations found that the vast majority of schools contained asbestos, and many of them had asbestos contamination from deteriorating building materials.
What do you do with all these asbestos contaminated buildings? If you tear them down before all the asbestos is removed asbestos will be dispersed into the air. On the other hand, if the profiteers were forced to remove all asbestos from just buildings alone that would bankrupt the economic system.
Asbestos fibers are very small, and when released into the air they can be picked up by the wind. This makes asbestos contamination very widespread, and since asbestos does not breakdown, all the asbestos that has been released into the environment is still there. One study found that of 50 U.S. cities tested, all had measurable levels of asbestos in the air, with New York having the highest levels.
Back in my days as part of the anti-nuclear movement I once heard a talk by Dr. John Gofman, one of those physicists who discovered plutonium, and did studies on radiation exposure. He spoke about all that was wrong with the nuclear industry, and then made the comment that there was another problem that was far worse than the nuclear industry. After his talk I asked him about the problem he referred to. He stated that the problem was asbestos, and that if we continue as we are, all land, air and water will be contaminated, and there will be nothing we can do to clean it up.
It was in 1900 that a London physician first discovered some of the deadly dangers of asbestos. Since that time the profiteers and the governments they control have been trying to cover-up the facts about asbestos. You could put together all the evil mass murders, including the Nazis and their bloody deeds, and it would not equal the death toll of the profiteers that use asbestos. These evil monsters should be held responsible for their actions, which have been deliberate, premeditated mass murder for profit. They should be stripped of all their wealth and their money be used to aid the victims of their greed and clean up as much of this mess as possible.
For the most part, I am against the death penalty, but for these monsters I would support their extermination, for the safety of all living things. A social/economic system that places profit above the lives of the people cannot be reformed. For the safety of all, it must be completely changed. Remember, there is no safe level of asbestos, or capitalism!
Arthur J. Miller has been a Marine Pipefitter since 1973 and has also been a union activist and radical journalist since the 1960s. This article is a chapter out of his book Yardbird Blues: Twenty Years in the Maritime Industry.