Monday, December 6, 2010

Asbestos: Occupational or Environmental Hazard?

This weekend the newspaper featured an interesting story about asbestos. Following an apartment fire, residents have been evacuated while the damage is being fixed. This includes remediation of asbestos (which is common in older buildings)--a mineral fiber likely used to insulate or possible strengthen the structure of the building (hard to know at this point).

The story focuses on the plight of tenants who must find alternate accommodation for four months and how the insurance company covering the fire will not cover these costs. There is also some minor discussion of how various regulatory schemes seem to interact around the asbestos removal.

Asbestos and its dangers are the subject of many books, the most recent being Defending the indefensible by Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale. The key health effects of asbestos exposure include asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer of the chest and stomach wall lining). There may also be other asbestos-related illnesses (I recall reading something about colorectal cancer and asbestos but cannot find the source offhand).

There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, despite governments enacting (ever lowering) occupational exposure limits for it. An interesting question this story raises is whether there is any real difference between an occupational hazard and an environmental hazard. The answer, according to McCulloch and Tweedale, is not really.

While occupational exposures to hazards such as asbestos tend to be in higher concentrations (thus the resulting diseases manifest themselves more frequently and more quickly), the mineral poses risks to everyone, particularly given its prevalence in the environment. This relationship is not confined to asbestos but seems to be broadly applicable across hazards.

The China Price details how coal mining and power generation in China, for example, entails both occupational and environmental effects as air and water are polluted. And, of course, the introduction of lead to gasoline first manifested itself as a hazard among workers and is now recognized as a source of lead contamination in the air, water and soil which is particularly dangerous to children.

Returning to asbestos, there is widespread disease in South Africa and Australia among miner’s families exposed to asbestos in the community. Workers have been treated as largely disposable by asbestos mining corporations who knew as early as 1918 about the risks but hide them for another 50-odd years and continue to evade compensating workers for their losses.

Canada is not immune to asbestos, with fibres brought home in workers’ clothes causing asbestos-related diseases among their families. But have a look around your own home if it pre-dates the 1970s—you’ll likely find asbestos in floor tiles as well as insulating pipes and ducts (this will look like fabric adhered to ductwork). Asbestos has also made its way (over time) into the food chain, paints, dishtowels, bank notes, tampons, insulation, piano felts, and cigarette filters (ironically asbestos and cigarette smoke interaction to increase the risk of lung cancer by 90 times over smoking alone).

The potential death toll from asbestos-related diseases is massive: 10,000 deaths per year in the US alone (as many as 100,000 annual across the globe). This takes no account of the declining quality of life of those afflicted with asbestos. And interesting local angle is this audio clip of a daughter discussing her father’s death by asbestosis in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

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