My brother-in-law died from lung cancer a few years ago. That's
not strictly true: he had a lung operation and died after surgery,
but he wasn't in good shape and might have died anyway. He was just
five years older than I am.
He was a smoker as I was, except that he never quit. I quit more
than ten years ago, which is good, but still: I smoked for a lot
He and I also shared another cancer related problem: we were
both exposed to asbestos. He more than I: I worked in the
industrial boiler industry for a few years, he was in it his
Working on big boilers isn't clean work. It's filthy: oil fumes,
soot (yeah, we cleaned them as well as serviced them). I can't
imagine how much junk we breathed in those boiler rooms. But the
big thing, the thing we ddn't even know was dangerous, was asbestos.
We knew we shouldn't breathe the soot and fumes. We had masks we wore when we were cleaning. Crappy,
ineffectual masks, yes, but they probably provided some protection. But
when it came to the asbestos, we didn't even think about it.
There were at least two products I remember handling regularly. One
was asbestos rope and the other was Kaowool. I've looked at the materials safety
sheet for the latter, it doesn't seem too bad:
There has been no increased incidence of respiratory disease in
studies examining occupationally exposed workers. In animal studies,
long term laboratory exposure to doses hundreds of times higher
than normal occupational exposures has produced fibrosis, lung
cancer and mesothelioma in rats or hamsters. The fibers used in
those studies were specially sized to maximize rodent respirability
Asbestos rope is something else entirely. They now make "dust free"
asbestos rope, but I can well remember pulling lengths of this stuff
from the box, measuring it against my arm, and seeing fibers dance in
the light. We just did not know there was any danger. We didn't wear masks.
Do a Google search today for "asbestos rope", "asbestos packing rope"
and you'll probably not find much that doesn't warn you of mesothelioma and asbestos exposure risks. But not then.
So we blithely measured the stuff out and packed it into the boiler
doors. Skin exposure to asbestos can produce callouses or corns; I
never experienced that, but I guarantee you that I breathed plenty of
fibers from the rope.
When there's even a hint of asbestos today, people don protective suits
and masks. It's treated very seriously. We treated it casually: we did
not know that it could hurt us.
Aside from actually working in the field, I also worked in the Parts
Department. Customers ordered asbestos rope, and would usually order
the number of feet they actually needed. Again I'd be pulling that
stuff out of the box, measuring it, breathing the dust. Not good.
I've mentioned this to my doctors so that they know the chances of
my developing lung cancer are probably greater than average. What
else can you do? I breathed the asbestos fibers, I can't un-breathe
The dangers of asbestos were well known at the time I was exposed to this. Known to the manufacturers, that is, though not to those of us handling this daily. That makes me very angry, honestly.
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