Asbestos Becomes a Menace

By Finnegan, Lisa | Occupational Hazards, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Asbestos Becomes a Menace


Finnegan, Lisa, Occupational Hazards


Once widely hailed as a "miracle" fiber, asbestos is shown to be as deadly as it is versatile.

When Dr. Irving J. Selikoff told more than 400 scientists at the Conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos in October 1964 that asbestos was killing workers, it changed how Americans viewed workplace hazards.

"Dr. Selikoff's meeting in 1964 is the most important thing that has happened this century in occupational safety and health," said Dr. William Rom, professor of medicine and environmental medicine at New York University Medical Center. "Nothing was the same after all the evidence he produced about asbestos and its links to cancer."

Case studies indicating a connection between asbestos exposure and cancer had begun appearing in the 1930s. Throughout the '60s, evidence that the "wonder material" was hazardous began to mount. In 1963, Dr. Thomas Mancuso of the University of Pittsburgh published evidence linking workers exposed to asbestos at a brake lining factory to lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Selikoff's findings were the first to definitively link asbestos not only with respiratory disease, but to cancer as well. Other researchers at the same conference presented evidence showing that the tiny asbestos fibers were turning up in the lungs of the wives and children of workers who handled asbestos. It also appeared to affect the health of citizens living near asbestos mines and landfills in South Africa, where much of the material originated.

What doctors were discovering was that asbestos fibers attached themselves to the mesothelium, a unique type of cell that lines the chest cavity and the lungs, as well as the abdomen. The asbestos caused the mesothelium to harden, leading to a variety of complications from asbestosis to cancer of the lungs and stomach.

The Burden of Proof

In the early '60s, said Rom, industry was aware of concerns about asbestos but, they "were skeptical until the burden of evidence became overwhelming, and this happened in 1964."

By 1964, asbestos was used in everything from insulation in homes and schools to filters in cigarettes. It was also used in every ship that left our country's ports. It was considered a "miracle" material because it did not burn, was hard as rock and could be used virtually anywhere.

Paul Safchuck worked at the Sparrow Point Shipyard, outside Baltimore, Md., from 1935 to 1975. Operated by Bethlehem Steel, the shipyard built commercial and military vessels, including warships sent out to the seemingly endless Vietnam conflict.

"I worked there from 1935 until 1975, and I was never told about the dangers of asbestos," he said. "They never told the average worker that what they were working with was dangerous. They were making too much money to worry about it."

Safchuck, who has asbestosis, said the material was used on every ship built back then. Workers handled it with bare hands and never thought to wear respirators. Safchuck's son also worked at the site and was diagnosed seven years ago with asbestosis.

"At lunch time we would sit down on the deck, which was covered with asbestos dust, lay our lunches down on it and eat right there," he said. "It was especially bad in the engine rooms. It was so dusty down there it looked like it was snowing. You couldn't see from one end of the room to the other."

ACGIH Takes Notice

Once Selikoff's discovery was made public, scientists began to reexamine existing protections for workers. In 1968, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), announced its intention to change the way asbestos was measured to determine its threshold limit value. …

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