Canada hypocritical on a dangerous mineral [asbestos] – by Keeble McFarlane (Jamiaca Observer – October 22, 2011)

We all no doubt remember the rushing cloud of whitish dust which ballooned out over southern Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, as the iconic towers of the World Trade Centre fell in on themselves after the planes commandeered by terrorists crashed into them.

In addition to the almost 3000 people who died in the towers themselves, dozens of rescue workers and others caught in the cloud have since died from exposure to the dust. Many others developed serious lung problems which have severely affected their health and which will invariably shorten their lives.

That cloud was a toxic mixture of all the materials contained in those towering structures – gypsum wallboard, floor and ceiling tiles, disintegrated concrete, shredded paper, furniture, carpets and draperies, office chemicals, metal residue, even food blown to bits in the devastation and, saddest of all, people and their clothing. Perhaps most crucial was the 400 tonnes of asbestos, used as a fire-retardant.

Asbestos is a family of minerals known to mankind for more than 4500 years. It is fibrous in form and doesn’t burn. In ancient Greece, they used it to make wicks for oil lamps, funeral shrouds and ceremonial tablecloths. Asbestos came into its own during the industrial revolution, when engineers harnessed its fire-proof, heat-resisting and insulating properties in their new steam-driven factories. Asbestos covered hot pipes, was woven into steam packing and drive belts, lined furnaces and was compressed into pads used in brakes and clutches.

Between the two world wars, its applications expanded widely in office buildings, schools, factories and elsewhere. In the cold countries it insulated hot water pipes feeding radiators, was put into walls and ceilings as insulation – both for heat and sound – and sprayed onto structural members as a barrier against fire. It found its way into electrical installations and domestic appliances. Until the 1980s houses were full of products containing asbestos – roofing shingles and underlay, exterior siding, insulation for pipes and boilers, caulking, wallboard, decorative plaster, stucco, acoustic ceiling tiles, vinyl floor tiles, appliance wiring and heat-resisting pads for ironing boards and hair dryers and even clay pottery.

But today, asbestos has fallen out of fashion in many parts of the world, since it has been proven time and again that in addition to its many desirable properties, it is a serious health hazard.

People who have been exposed over many years develop illnesses caused by the extremely tiny fibres. These fibres are several times thinner than a human hair, are practically indestructible and lodge themselves in the lining of the lung. Lungs can handle inhaled matter quite well if the particles or fibres are relatively large. Tiny hairs lining the upper parts of the lungs whip back and forth to sweep this contamination up into the throat where it can be spat out.

But tiny fibres such as asbestos find their way deep into the lungs, and in any case are far too small to be swept out by the defence mechanism. As they lodge in the lining, the body reacts by encasing each tiny fibre in a pocket. This walling-in process eventually ends up thickening the lung lining and severely restricting its capacity to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide between the blood and air, a condition called asbestosis. Suffering is the apt description of what this does to a person. Normal activity like walking across the room is a monumental effort, leaving the person gasping after a mere few steps. The use of oxygen supplied through a small plastic tube directly to the nose eases the discomfort and prolongs the victim’s life, which now amounts to a life sentence.

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