A Grim Asbestos Lesson
The notice was on the letterhead of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW). It read: “Asbestos: The Deadly Killer,” followed by these words — “We invite you to a screening of a slide show explaining asbestos — its dangers and what workers can do .to protect themselves. Thurs., Oct. 14, 1976, Conference Room, AFL-CIO Bldg., Wash., D.C. at 2:30 p.m.” Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter should have attended. They might have found a real issue for the campaign — what to do about a silent but raging epidemic of occupational diseases, including asbestosis, that afflict millions of workers in this country.
OF THE TENS of thousands of chemical compounds, gases, and particles in the workplace, asbestos is among the deadliest and most pervasive. Once in your lungs it never dissolves, and asbestos is in many lungs — factory workers’ lungs, construction workers’ lungs, auto mechanics’ lungs, office workers lungs, and even in the lungs of spouses and children of asbestos workers. Lung diseases and cancer 20 or 30 years after the exposure comprise the casualty toll.
With over 3,000 commercial applications, including insulation, wall board, and brake linings, asbestos finds its way almost everywhere. Workers who come home with asbestos on their clothing and shoes contaminate their own families.
Studies at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and other research centers are reporting startling findings. In a group of 650 asbestos insulation workers, one third of them died of cancer within 20 years.
The OCAW slide show is designed to do what the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has neglected doing, namely, educate the workers about the menace and the remedy.
Until recently, most workers had no idea that asbestos particles or dust was anything more than annoying. Federal law now limits the presence of asbestos in the work environment. But serious questions remain about the standard’s adequacy and whether it will be enforced. Moreover, the out
side environment remains virtually ignored and so do office buildings whose air conditioning is sucking in microscopic asbestos particles that have been sprayed on steel girders as fire retardants during construction.
IT IS NOT AS IF asbestos has just been discovered as a disease producer. This has been known by medical scientists for many decades. It is just that as a form of silent violence with a delayed disease reaction, asbestos does not possess the graphic characteristics that command the attention of political forces. This is especially so when the sources of the asbestos use are powerful corporations which try to legitimize the problem by calling it the unavoidable “price of progress.”
But it is eminently avoidable. As the OCAW slide show reveals, there are many ways to reduce asbestos contamination. Asbestos can also be substituted for by other materials or stopped altogether in some of its uses. The appalling practice of openly spraying steel girders at construction sites, for example, has been stopped in many places.
No matter what happens to control asbestos in the future, however, the mortality rate from cancer of those who regularly work with it is 40 percent.
Anthony Mazzochi, OCAW’s legislative director, calls the slide show and its accompanying materials the first of several teaching tools on specific occupational hazards that the union intends to produce and show to workers. The American Income Life Insurance Company of Waco, Texas, helped fund the production of the asbestos slide show in recognition of its responsibility to advance the public health. More unions and insurance companies should follow this example.
For information on how to obtain a copy of the asbestos slide show, readers can write to OCAW, 1126 16th St., N.W., Wash., D.C. 20036.