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Asbestos: The Urban Environment’s Hidden Killer
Wednesday July 4, 2012
When most people think of the environment, the first thought that comes to most peoples’ minds is Global Warming, Deforestation in Brazil and the melting of the Polar Ice Caps. However there is another manufactured threat built within the fabrics of the environments we all live and work in; Asbestos.
For a number of years, the subject of Asbestos was much overlooked after the use of the three main types of Asbestos were banned, Crocidolite in 1985 Amosite in 1986 and finally Chrysotile in 1999 from use in construction and in number of products ranging from insulation, soundproofing, fireproofing to brake linings in cars, along with a number of other every products and uses.
9/11 Fallout Raised Awareness
One event brought Asbestos back into focus, September 11 2001, when the Twin Towers and other buildings collapsed at the World Trade Centre after the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda. Upon collapse of the Twin Towers, it is estimated that 400 metric tonnes of asbestos dust mixed with other toxic compounds formed by the burning jet fuel in the burning towers released in the air in Lower Manhattan. The toxic cocktail of dust was inhaled by thousands of people fleeing from their offices in the area and city emergency services and rescue staff.  In addition to that dust penetrated homes and offices in the surrounding neighbourhood; most people did not take the necessary precautions such as using safety masks when being exposed to the dust either fleeing from the collapsing towers or during the clean-up both on the streets and within homes and offices.
Although there was an official record of 400 tonnes of Asbestos used in the construction of just the Twin Towers at the World Trade, there are suggestions that there was were still 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of asbestos still remaining within the fireproofing, paneling and insulation in the construction of the World Trade Centre and the surrounding buildings that collapsed releasing the toxic cocktail of dust.
The main buildings that collapsed in 9/11 were 1 & 2 World Trade Centre the 110-floor Twin Towers, which both collapsed on 4 World Trade Centre, 7 World Trade Centre and the Marriott World Trade Centre Hotel. Once all buildings collapsed it is estimated that over 110,000 people were exposed to the thick dust which spread throughout the Lower Manhattan area. Of course the first people to be exposed to the dust were the 4,000 emergency services workers, police, firemen, medical services as well as city officials, in addition over 80,000 people working in the towers and immediate area along with curious bystanders fleeing the area. Then there is an estimated 30,000 residents who were exposed to the toxic dust which had even penetrated apartments through open windows and air conditioning systems.
It has recently been reported that ultimately over 600,000 people in the Lower Manhattan area on 9/11 and after during the clean-up could have been affected by the carcinogenic dust, showing symptoms of Mesothelioma and other Asbestos related health problems up to 30-years after the event.
After the dust from 9/11 had settled, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the cloud of dust covering Lower Manhattan consisted of assumedly harmless “ground-up construction materials”; naturally this is a vague statement. As a result thousands of residents and workers returned to the Lower Manhattan area after 9/11 assuming there was no threat to health. However, studies conducted after 9/11 studies showed that the air around Ground Zero and Lower Manhattan contained increased asbestos levels after 9/11, which put thousands of residents and workers at risk to exposure to Asbestos and subsequently fatal diseases, such as Mesothelioma, Asbestosis and Lung Cancer, as well as debilitating respiratory problems,
In 2003 just two years after 9/11, Deborah Reeve a Paramedic with the New York Fire Department was the first person to show symptoms of acute lung disease from being exposed to the toxic Asbestos dust; she was diagnosed a year later in 2004 with Mesothelioma, a lung disease caused by Asbestos; she died 2006, the first official fatality from the exposure to the Asbestos filled dust cloud just 5 years after 9/11.
As for natural disasters, Earthquakes are the biggest risks where asbestos is concerned. There are many buildings throughout the world, especially in developing economies, that still contain asbestos. During Earthquakes when buildings crack, crumble and collapse, asbestos dust and fibres within buildings, or insulation around plumbing and in walls are released into the atmosphere, again putting the general public and emergency service workers at risk. Of course dust always settles after which clean-up operations commence.
Buildings that collapsed in the March 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan resulted in large volumes of Asbestos dust and fibres being released into the air exposing thousands of people to the hazardous material, as well as the radioactive fallout from the explosion of the Fukushima Power Plant.
Exposure to Asbestos even in small amounts can lead to Mesothelioma, a disease that can lead to death within a period of 2 to 30 years depending on the level of exposure to asbestos, age and other health factors. The disease is a cancer affects the linings of the alveoli of the lungs; as asbestos is impossible to break down by the body’s own antibodies, the body’s defence system acts by continually sending antibodies to break down the asbestos fibres or particles in the lungs which eventually scars the tissue surrounding the asbestos. In most cases Mesothelioma sufferers do not die directly from the disease itself, but from a heart attack as a result of oxygenated blood not reaching the heart from the lungs.
Asbestosis is another disease that scars and hardens Lung Tissue. Thousands of miners in the mining industry have died from this disease, especially in countries like South Africa with a strong Gold and Diamond mining industry where the ground at lower levels is abundant in Amosite or Brown Asbestos. Asbestos Mining and processing was also a major source of income for the South African economy until it was officially banned only as recently as 2008.
Lung Cancer
Asbestos is one of the most common causes of Lung Cancer deaths worldwide. The risk of Lung Cancer with people who work with Asbestos related products and who smoke is 57 times greater than a person who doesn’t smoke but is exposed to Asbestos. Examples of people most at risk here are Blue Collar workers working with plumbing insulation, fireproof textiles manufacturing, automotive mechanics working with gaskets and brake linings, as well as construction workers and builders where asbestos was used to bulk up cement as an insulate but also to bond cement, plus it was cheaper than cement.
Cape PLC Case
In one notable case 7500 plaintiffs mostly workers and their relatives, mainly Black South Africans, took Cape PLC to court for occupational related diseases and deaths resulting from working in asbestos mines in South Africa. The unremitting 6-year case was conducted in both Johannesburg South Africa and the Royal Courts of Justice in London against the British firm Cape PLC where a judgment was made in favour of the 7500 plaintiffs where approximately £45 million GBP was paid in compensation by both Cape PLC and Gencor which took over Cape PLC’s operation in South Africa. However, £6,000 per person cannot be considered compensation for loss of health and life.
Asbestos Does Not Discriminate
Asbestos related diseases do not discriminate on rich or poor people, White Collar or Blue Collar. Celebrities who died from Asbestos related diseases such as Mesothelioma include the Actor Steve McQueen and former Sex Pistols manager and entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren.
Although Steve McQueen died at the early age of 50 from a Cardiac Arrest resulting from Mesothelioma, which in an interview he attributed to exposure to asbestos from crumbling sound-proofing in sound stages at movie studios; protective fireproof suits and helmets when he was race car driving, both as a hobby and in the 1960s film Le Mans; but mainly during his time in the US Marines where he stripped vast quantities of asbestos insulation/lagging from pipes in the US Navy ship on which he served. Admittedly Steve McQueen was a smoker and did quit so he was at greater risk from contracting asbestos related diseases than a non-smoker.
Malcolm McLaren, also died relatively young at the age of 54 form Mesothelioma. He had worked in the textiles and clothing industry in the Sweat Shops of East-End London in the 1960s where most makeshift factories where asbestos lagging and paneling were used extensively. The main cause of  McLaren’s Mesothelioma is suspected to be attributable to when he remodeled his clothing store in London’s Kings Road, where he personally removed wall paneling containing Asbestos, without the use of a safety mask.
April 6th 2012, the UK Health and Safety Executive introduced new codes and laws regarding the use, handling and removal of Asbestos, especially where Occupational Health & Safety and Corporate Social Responsibility are concerned. The new codes have raised standards are 10 times stricter than previously.
The UK HSE estimates that there are around four million properties in the United Kingdom that contain asbestos, and further estimated that within these properties that several million notifications for removal and handling of asbestos will be required each year, involving an estimated 730,000 workers. The UK is regarded as enforcing the highest possible standards when it comes to the removal, handling and management of Asbestos.
The new laws covering Asbestos in the UK followed from a major Supreme Court Ruling in October 2011, which overruled a previous ruling in 2006 by the House of Lords that victims who had suffered from Asbestos related diseases whilst working in construction, heavy industry especially shipbuilding in Scotland, could not claim compensation.
The Supreme Court Ruling came about as a result British Insurance firms headed by AXA General Insurance that tried to appeal against the Damages Act passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2009, which allowed plaintiffs to make £7m and £9m for compensation from exposure diseases attributable to asbestos; obviously this would mean Insurance firms paying out billions in compensation for victims of exposure to Asbestos in the work place. Furthermore, the Statue of Limitations was lifted which allowed for the widow of a retired construction who died from Mesothelioma to receive compensation for damages long after the initial exposure to asbestos.
Ship Recycling
The Ship Recycling Sector is without doubt one of the biggest risks where Occupational Health & Safety and the Environment are concerned. Officially there are five countries permitted to dismantle ships to recycle scrap metal and other materials.
The five Ship-Breaking Yards, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Changjiang in China, Alang in India, Gadani in Pakistan and Aliaga in Turkey are regulated by Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships 2009, Basel Convention.  However, these countries all emerging markets with a cheap labour force which lack government enforcement on regulatory, compliance and health and safety standards.
Aliaga Ship Breaking yard in the Mediterranean was recently featured in a CNN Environmental Feature shown “The Road to Durban”, Aliaga’s recycling steel initiatives were highlighted, however there was no mention of managing asbestos.  In the interview the spokesman for the Aliaga ship-breaking yard stated they were recycling up to 80 ships.
Many ships especially naval vessels built up to the 1990s, may contain anywhere from 45 tonnes on small ships and up to 500 to 1,000 tonnes on larger ships with it is certain that standards are not implemented.
In most cases valuable steel is redeemed and sold off, however removed asbestos on ships is often dumped and discarded in open areas around ship-breaking yards even dumped on beaches. With such large volumes of asbestos being dumped in such areas, pollution of the seas and subsequently contamination fisheries, as well as coastal agricultural areas is almost certain.
Workers dismantling ships are required to wear disposable suits, safety masks and remove asbestos in sealed negative pressure areas; furthermore workers are required to take showers with the safety suits and masks to wash away asbestos dust and fibres before removing their suits and masks.
It is likely that controls and standards in handling and managing asbestos are to a higher standard in Turkey and China than in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan where untrained workers, mostly children work at ship-breaking yards, without protective clothing any safety masks. In such countries, workers are exploited as there are no unions protecting workers’ rights, moreover little or no enforcement even an absence of Occupational Health & Safety authorities and policies. In Turkey, a complete ban on Asbestos was only enforced as recently as January 2011, mainly to the fact that it is a Trading Partner with the European Union. It can be assumed that legislation on Asbestos in Bangladesh, China, India and Pakistan are still in their infancy.
Before regulations on the handling of asbestos were enforced, in the more developed countries like the UK, US and Canada, factory workers involved in the manufacturing of asbestos products, would leave the factory in their work clothes with asbestos fibres on their clothes, go home transfer asbestos fibres to their home environment, resulting in people not working with Asbestos inhaling asbestos fibres subsequently suffering from asbestos related diseases.
Accords Covering Asbestos
There are a number of laws regulations and conventions that cover aspects of Occupational Health & Safety, CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) the environment as well as the removal, handling and disposal of asbestos and other hazardous materials; these include:
  • The UK Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
  • UN Convention 27 August 2010
  • ASTURIAS PLEDGE convened by WHO (World Health Organisation)
  • EU Directive 89/2 on Occupational Health & Safety (OHS)
  • The Amendment to the Convention on the Con­trol of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (
  • Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009
However, different countries, some at varying stages in the economic and industrial cycles have national laws which sometimes contradict and supersede international legislation; some countries do not allow the transportation of asbestos and other hazardous materials, meaning they cannot be disposed of appropriately. Some countries have complex bureaucracy, where it is impossible define which authorities, laws and regulations apply to the presence, removal, management and disposal of hazardous materials.
Recent research by WHO (World Health Organisation) show that and estimated 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and Oesophageal Cancer, attributable to exposure to asbestos in the work place. This is likely to be much higher as in Third World countries people cannot afford and do not have access to medical facilities for diagnosis such as X-Rays, Scans even treatment for such diseases. In some countries and cultures especially Islam, autopsies are forbidden so deaths go undiagnosed.
Raising greater awareness on the health and environmental risks of Asbestos is the only way forward in reducing the number of deaths from Asbestos related diseases.
One organisation that is leading the way globally in raising awareness in the risks of Asbestos is the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), which is led by ADAO Co-Founder CEO/President Linda Reinstein whose husband was diagnosed with Mesothelioma in 2003 which led her to establish ADAO in 2004.
The aims of ADAO are to unite asbestos victims, raise awareness and educate the general public and medical community about asbestos related diseases, as well as campaign against the use of asbestos, but also to support research to enable to early detection even prevention and curing Asbestos related diseases.
Why was Asbestos used for over a Century after the Industrial Revolution? It was in abundance, easy to work with and process, light weight, an excellent insulator, regarded as a wonder material; but most of all cheap, however not cheap medical treatment, peoples’ health the cost of and their lives were concerned.
On a final note, Asbestos is categorised as a Grade 2 Hazardous Material; Radioactive Material is Grade 1, though in the United Kingdom both Radioactive Materials and Asbestos are handled and managed with the same level of precaution and severity; however, Asbestos is still abundant in many buildings throughout the World.
Related Links:
UK Health & Safety Executive
UK Legislation The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization
Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization on Facebook ADAOAsbestos
Linda Reinstein - ADAO Co-Founder CEO/President
Linda Reinstein on Twitter @Linda_ADAO
Linda Reinstein on Facebook Linda.Reinstein.ADAO
Simmons Law Firm LLC
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"It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment." - Ansel Adams
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