Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Book reveals asbestos still has a chokehold on us
By Diane Weddington, Alameda Times-Star Contributor, February 23, 2004

A KILLER sits waiting in Newark and Niles, in Antioch, Richmond and San Mateo. The next victim could be a homeowner, a building contractor, an electrician, a plumber, a gardener or a mechanic.

The killer will strike quickly, but death will be slow and agonizing and often the real killer will not even be recognized. Thousands have already died and the toll will rise to thousands more.

"An Air That Kills" by Andrew Schneider and David McCumber (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 440 pages, $25.95) is the kind of book that could sit in a forgotten corner of bookstores, a thick book drawn from 47,000 pages of legal documents and more than 700 interviews. But it deserves a place on the reading list of every person who has had brake repairs, pest control or bought crayons for children.

The killer is asbestos, a fiber that hooks into the lungs and slowly chokes its victims. Because of heavy publicity about the removal of asbestos from many buildings, most people believe it is illegal to produce and use asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to ban asbestos failed in 1989 and subsequent attempts to control its use and compensate its victims have been mired in governmental impasses. Import of asbestos products has increased 300 percent in the past decade alone.

"An Air That Kills" is at its core a book about the tragedy, the betrayal and the courage of the people of Libby, Mont., where a corporation and the government deliberately allowed the mining and export of a product, knowing it killed those who worked with it.

The people of Libby told their personal stories to Pulitzer-winning journalist Schneider and editor McCumber and helped uncover this deadly public health problem. Readers will be unable to put down the real accounts of these ordinary people who turned to the mines as the only way to survive in the rugged Montana mountain town.

Schneider was on another assignment when he stumbled on the Libby story, and did not know it would involve almost every home in America. The story is even intimately tied to the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center.

McCumber, a blunt and seasoned newsroom editor, says he will never forget looking into the eyes of the miner who blames himself for killing his family by exposing them to the dust left on his clothes when he came home from the mines.

"They had no showers, no way to clean up before they came home. They brought the dust into the house, and their wives and children breathed it, and it killed them," McCumber says in an interview in San Francisco while on a book promotion tour.

"He told me he'd never have taken the work if he'd known it would kill his family."

In 1916 entrepreneur Edgar Alley discovered vermiculite in a mountain outside Libby. Putting the crystals on a stove, he found they were fireproof and provided insulation. He called these heated crystals Zonolite and by 1924 was running a treatment plant, making the product and selling it. It was dirty work, covering the miners in a toxic cloud of dust and filling the town's air, water and homes with particles. It was also one of the most successful products of the 20th century.

The product caught on and the small enterprise grew through name changes and ownership, ultimately becoming the W.R. Grace & Co. The biggest seller was Zonolite, and Zonolite stalks the country today, still killing those who come in contact with it, most often accidentally, the authors say.

Grace invoices show that billions of pounds of ore were shipped to 750 processing plants in the United States alone, and that finished products were put into more than 35 million homes.

Records show that 575 million pounds of raw vermiculite were shipped to a processing plant at 6851 Smith Ave. in Newark before the plant ceased operations in early 1994. That product was distributed all over the Bay Area, much of it ending up in San Francisco high-rises and in attics in homes throughout the region. Other product ended up in Fremont lettuce fields that now are covered by housing.

The most often-used product was commonly called "loose-fill" insulation. It came in raw form in bags. Contractors or homeowners opened the bags and threw the loose material into the ceilings, walls or other areas needing insulation, inhaling it in the process.

If the material is not disturbed, it causes no further problems, McCumber says. But when older homes are repaired or renovated, when electrical repairs are done, when the pest control man crawls in search of vermin, workers may disturb the insulation, and it is just as deadly now as when first installed.

In Richmond, the U.S. Navy embraced Zonolite as a wonder product, critical in the effort to win World War II. More than 4.5 million shipyard workers, including those who worked in Richmond, were exposed to asbestos in World War II and the Korean War. More military personnel died from asbestos exposure than from German and Japanese attacks in both wars, McCumber says.

Remnants of Zonolite can be found in old military bases, many now closed. Yet thousands of veterans are not even aware they were exposed.

Even ordinary acts carry repercussions. About 6 million mechanics have at some point been exposed to asbestos in brake pads, and 580 die each year, according to the authors.

As late as 2000, a nationally known crayon manufacturer was using asbestos in crayons. An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer challenged that practice, which was ended but not before many children had chewed on crayons or breathed in the wax fumes. Even home gardeners have been exposed by adding bags of vermiculite to garden beds.

The list of cities where the ore from Libby was processed covers the entire country. Other communities had potential for exposure as trains carrying the ore rumbled across the country.

The World Trade Center towers, and the buildings surrounding the area, all contained the toxic material. The toll from the bombing will be far greater than the numbers who died in the attack, McCumber says. The fine dust that covered people and homes for miles, that the rescue workers breathed, that sits in the ruined scraps, will claim thousands more victims, even as it claims shipyard workers and/or backyard mechanics.

Explaining why he chose this issue, out of all possible issues, he explains, "That's what journalism is about, after all, isn't it? Public service, getting the facts to the people. That's why journalism really is a higher calling. This kind of reporting is what journalism is about when it's at its best."

Diane Weddington is a Bay Area freelance writer. E-mail her at .

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

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