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Lung Cancer Fears

© November 2008 Anthony Lawrence

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 of years.

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 entire life.

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 them.

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.

This page is part of an experiment. See Maybe I don't want to be rich for details.

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