I hated middle school (I was new, nerdy, skinny, and had really big, thick glasses), but I loved my middle school building. It was such a caricature of a school. It had three or four stories, an old, wide staircase, and a dungeon-like basement where sex ed and home ec were taught. It pleased the romantic in me. The building was torn down right after I entered high school because, among other things, it was riddled with asbestos. The ceiling panels and insulation that crumpled on my desk while I covered my eyes through videos about LSD and reproduction (the two having become horribly conflated in memory) did not just bear innocuous dust. It contained asbestos.
James O’Shea from the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center recently got in touch with me. The dangers of asbestos took me back to my own exposure from youth. These exposures have not disappeared: I recently became aware that my home had asbestos in the basement. We had it remediated. As I watched the men coming and going from the basement wearing spaceman-like outfits covering their bodies and respirators over their faces, I thought disconcertingly of the times I had taken my baby into that very room.
Despite the known dangers of asbestos, it has not been banned in the U.S. Products made today which contain asbestos “that could be inhaled” are supposed to be labeled. Asbestos can still be found regularly in buildings and homes that predate 1970; in asbestos fixtures that permeate oil refineries, coal plants, and other industries; and can even be found in the workings of your car.
Asbestos has been linked to cancer and other diseases. “When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they lodge in the pleural lining of the lungs, which lays the groundwork for mesothelioma and other respiratory complications later down the road,” says O’Shea.