New Asbestos Threats Affect Vets, Workers, Children and Drinking Water

In the last month alone, asbestos contamination has plagued a veterans' medical center in Denver, construction workers rehabbing a school in southern Illinois as well as an elementary school in the state, and potentially, a popular river and drinking water source in Colorado.

Two Illinois construction companies, Kehrer Brothers Construction and D7 Roofing, face nearly $2 million in fines after inspectors with the federal Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration found that they had directed workers to remove asbestos and asbestos-laced materials from a school in Okawville, Ill., without the required training or equipment.

The agency said the companies "failed to warn employees, some of whom spoke only Spanish, of the danger - even though they were aware of the asbestos hazard. They also failed to ensure that workers used appropriate work methods and respirators, and to train them about the hazards of working around asbestos," according to an Aug. 11 news release.

A number of the exposed workers "came to the U.S. to work for Kehrer under the H-2B visa program that allows companies to hire foreign workers temporarily. The investigation also found the Kehrer management threatened some workers with termination if they spoke with OSHA inspectors," the agency noted in its release.

Elsewhere in Illinois, Centralia's Schiller Elementary School was forced to close just days before classes were due to start after workers discovered mold growing on asbestos-containing insulation. Teachers had to pack up and move to a church across town, where the 200 students will attend classes until a cleanup is complete. The closing came just days after a Washington Post report spotlighting the continued threat that asbestos poses to students, teachers and others at many of the nation's schools.

Military veterans are no strangers to the dangers of asbestos, accounting for roughly 30 percent of all victims of mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by exposure to the mineral. Asbestos was once widely used by all branches of the military, most notably as a component in Navy ships built over decades.

So it's particularly ironic that far from the ships, tanks and other vehicles that exposed millions of military men and women to the lethal fibers, federal worker safety inspectors last month found asbestos in a stairwell and overhead spaces at the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In addition to these confirmed exposure threats, what could be a much more widespread case developed when a routine Environmental Protection Agency inspection of an abandoned mine near Riverton, Colo. turned into an environmental and public health disaster. The federal workers inadvertently released 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the once-pristine Animas River, which now runs mustard yellow. The river, a favorite of whitewater rafting and fly fishing enthusiasts and a source of drinking water for Durango and several other communities, now contains extremely high levels of lead, arsenic and other toxic substances. Similar accidents in the past have resulted in asbestos contamination as well, and it could very well turn up in the Animas, according to experts and media reports.

These four real-life and recent examples reflect the widespread danger that asbestos poses for virtually every American community, where even the slightest exposures can result in serious, often fatal, health problems later in life. A naturally occurring mineral once heavily mined in western states, asbestos was widely used in a wide variety of products and settings, and it still turns up in many American homes, schools, public buildings and even in some children's toys. Up to 15,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-related diseases, and the toll is not likely to drop any time soon.

In an effort to address the problem, a bill pending before Congress - the Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database (or READ) Act sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in the Senate and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) in the House - would require companies that use asbestos to regularly disclose what products it's in and where they may be located. The information would be turned over to EPA and made available online so people could find out where there may be asbestos-containing items in their local area.