Asbestos is often considered a threat from a bygone era. Yet the very nature of this deadly substance, which can stay dormant in people’s lungs for up to 50 years, tells a very different story. With the persistence of asbestos all around us, it’s not impossible to think that we’ll still be experiencing numerous asbestos deaths 50 or 100 years down the line.
While most asbestos is out of sight and well-maintained, this hasn’t always been the case. For the four examples below, asbestos proved to have deadly consequences for swathes of people – polluting entire towns and districts, killing first responders, and destroying families across generations.
Connoisseurs of abandoned places (yes, they do exist) will be aware of Centralia, an American town that was abandoned due to raging underground fires. A similarly deserted town exists in Australia, though it was abandoned for very different reasons. Wittenoom sits in the country’s barren north-west, and was for decades one of the world’s biggest producers of ‘blue asbestos’ (crocidolite), and the largest source of the product in Australia. Asbestos mining in Wittenoom took place in some capacity for 27 years, before unprofitability and growing safety concerns closed all operations in 1966.
The dangers of blue asbestos were widely known at this point, but it would be decades until all forms of asbestos were banned from use. As the town’s population slowly dwindled from the mine closure (it was previously the region’s largest settlement), the toll on locals’ health became more and more apparent. Testing showed that the topsoil in and around Wittenoom contained dangerous levels of crocidolite, which could easily become airborne and inhaled when disturbed. This accelerated the town’s decline, although some people stubbornly remained against government warnings.
The closing down process began in earnest in the late 70s, with utilities being shut off entirely in 2006, and its official status as a town being removed in 2007. Deaths began to escalate in the intervening years, including one haunting example of two young boys pictured playing in the blue asbestos, who would both go on to die in their 30s. The blue asbestos ‘tailings’ (leftover materials from production) were scattered all around the town, as it was thought their insulating properties would fight the scorching heat. Some 2000 of the town’s 13,000 inhabitants over the years have gone on to die from an asbestos-related disease – perhaps the highest ever toll from a single disaster.
Perhaps the most indelible and tragic disaster of all time, the September 11th attacks are still burned into the memories of millions of people around the globe. The tragedy saw both towers of the World Trade Center in New York felled by two plane strikes, killing almost 3000 people. In the midst of this tragedy, many hundreds of people worked to free trapped survivors from the towers, including firefighters and other emergency personnel – many of whom ended up contributing to the final death toll.
Unfortunately, the destruction of the towers wasn’t the end of the damage caused by the attacks. The smoke from the initial fire and from the collapse both posed a health risk to survivors and emergency responders, many of whom were not wearing proper respiratory equipment. Included in this smoke was the huge quantity of asbestos used in the construction of the towers between 1966 and 1975. This was right at the height of asbestos use in the United States, which peaked in 1973 at 804,000 tons.
The inhalation of dust from the World Trade Center attacks has been conclusively linked to a higher than normal incidence of several rare cancers, including several blood cell cancers, thyroid cancer and male breast cancer. Unsurprisingly, it has also led to numerous lung problems among first responders, with a 2010 study of 5000 workers finding that all of them had diminished lung function, with a 10% loss of function on average. In addition, 30 to 40% still reported persistent breathing problems, and some 1000 of the 5000 studied were on “permanent respiratory disability” benefits
While only a few survivors of the attack are known to have died from asbestosis or mesothelioma so far, a large proportion have reported the common symptoms of either disease. As mesothelioma takes somewhere between 20 and 50 years to present severe symptoms in most cases, it is extremely likely that the incidence of asbestos-related diseases among survivors will begin to climb fairly imminently – adding a greater toll to what was already America’s darkest day.
The Libby vermiculite mine
Many people are familiar with the different colours of asbestos (white, brown and blue) and how they were steadily banned based on the dangers they posed. What fewer people will realise is that these are not the only kinds of asbestos, simply the ones most regularly mined for their properties. Other sources of asbestos were less sought-after during the boom period for asbestos in construction, and exist as contaminants in other minerals and ores.
Vermiculite is one of these other types of asbestos, and caused one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in US history. The asbestos was a contaminant in vermiculite mined in the town of Libby, Montana, which provided much of the employment in the area. Vermiculite is not always contaminated with asbestos, and is still widely used in all sorts of industrial and commercial applications, including insulation and fireproofing. However, the conditions under which vermiculite is formed are similar to those of asbestos.
The Libby mine ran throughout the 20th century, and by its sale in 1963 it was the biggest vermiculite mine. The extent to which the company running the mine knew about asbestos contamination is disputed, and they were cleared of blame in 2009. Local residents weren’t so lucky, with around 10% of the town dying as a direct result of asbestos exposure. The contaminated vermiculite was used all around the town as a building material, and required more than $425 million of federal funding to clean up.
The Armley asbestos disaster
The final disaster we’re covering is a little bit closer to home. The suburb of Armley in Leeds, England is fairly normal in most ways, consisting of around a thousand unremarkable brick houses. Yet among health experts, Armley is renowned for a shocking statistic: it had the highest incidence of mesothelioma anywhere in the country. Perhaps just as surprising are the reasons for this, and how this issue laid dormant for so long.
As one of the UK’s old centres of industry, it is perhaps unsurprising that Leeds was a centre for asbestos processing. A factory operated by the Turner & Newall Group sat on the outskirts of the suburb, and employed some 250 people at its peak, many from the surrounding area. Yet despite the factory closing all the way back in 1959, the health effects of asbestos haven’t been confined to those workers. All this time later, the land around the factory is still polluted – including those thousand or so homes.
Some 300 former employees of the factory are believed to have died from asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. What exacerbated the disaster was the factory’s open, unfiltered ventilation system. At its height, the factory would pump so much asbestos dust out of its chimneys and into the air that it would build up on windowsills and in the streets. There are stories of children using the dust to make snowballs, and sitting by the street level ventilation for warmth in the cooler months.
With asbestos-related diseases taking up to 50 years to manifest, the lasting damage of the factory at Armley remains unclear. What is clear is the way the local authorities and factory owners conspired to keep the disaster out of the headlines, as well as skirting their responsibility to clean up Armley, something documented in a Yorkshire Evening Post investigation in the late 80s. While the factory owner was eventually bankrupted by lawsuits, the level of asbestos contamination in Armley is unlikely to dissipate for some time – and the deaths will continue to mount.
The mining and use of asbestos remains one of the biggest industrial disasters of the 20th century, and a turning point for worker safety. As many of these events show, however, asbestos is still lingering all around the world – and the war against it still needs to be won.
One of the best ways to increase your awareness of asbestos is to take a UKATA Asbestos Awareness course. Prices for our brand new video-based course start from just £6.50 pp, and the course can be completed in as little as two hours. Visit our UKATA Asbestos Awareness page to start learning today!