January 7, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

Standing in her wedding gown, Courtney Davis held this sign:

“Message2Congress: If you had banned asbestos, maybe my dad would have been here to give me away.”

Her father, Larry W. Davis, 66, died in July 2012 of pleural mesothelioma—a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

Stephanie Harper was a daddy’s girl. She told reporter David McCumber, her father was a jack of all trades–repairing vehicles, fixing HVAC–and when he came home at night, “I’d sit on his feet and grab his pants leg.” The 37 year-old mother from Texas now suffers from mesothelioma and agonizing pain that goes along with it. Stephanie was most likely exposed to the asbestos fibers from her dad’s work clothes.

Paul Zygielbaum, 64, is a retired technology executive from Santa Rosa, California. He was exposed to asbestos at home and during his early career as an engineer. Zygielbaum was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2003. His treatment included ghastly surgery in which is abdomen was opened and filled with chemotherapy chemicals. Paul was on the legislative front lines in 2007 when the US Senate nearly passed a bill to ban asbestos.

The politics of that effort and the stories of Courtney, Stephanie and Paul are profiled by Hearst Newspapers’ reporter David McCumber. The three articles have been published over the last several weeks in the Connecticut Post, the San Antonio Express News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, respectively (here, here, and here.) McCumber does a public service reminding us that the scourge of asbestos—and the companies that profited from it—continues to cause disease and death.

Nearly 60 countries have banned asbestos, but the US is not one of them. Companies still import it into the US—more than 1,000 tons of it annually. We also have the deadly legacy of 13 million tons of the deadly mineral that was used in our country since 1900.

Then I read this from a news release issued by OSHA last month:

 “OSHA cites 6 Chicago-area companies for worker exposure to asbestos”

Really??  Workers still getting exposed to asbestos?

It makes me angry to learn how some companies gamble with people’s lives. Asbestos exposure in US workplaces is just setting up individuals and their families to be the next ones suffering from asbestos-related diseases. Even more maddening is that these companies won’t be held accountable when the exposed develop disease years from now. Something is seriously wrong with a company that allows its employees and others to be exposed to a known human carcinogen. Take away their business licenses and permits to operate.

OSHA’s news release indicates that last summer, the six firms were involved in a renovation project at Chute Middle School in Evanston, Illinois. The project involved removing 60 feet of pipe that contained asbestos insulation. OSHA responded to a complaint and found more than a dozen violations of safety standards designed to protect workers from exposure to asbestos. In this day and age—and more than 40 years after OSHA issued its first asbestos regulation—it’s inexcusable for any firm to be so ignorant about asbestos.

OSHA proposed two willful violations related to asbestos and a $55,000 penalty to Environmental Services Firm Ltd. of Evanston, Illinois. This firm was supposedly the onsite asbestos consultant.  F.E. Moran received citations for 10 serious violations related to asbestos and a proposed penalty of $47,500. The other firms that also received citations for violations of OSHA’s asbestos standard are Nicholas & Associates, ASAP Environmental, and B.B. Construction Enterprise, Inc.

I asked Paul Zygielbaum to read OSHA’s news release. He remarked:

“This is an unfortunate reminder of an ongoing American tragedy of which most citizens are unaware. I’m glad to see OSHA enforcing the law when companies carelessly or malevolently disregard the well-being of their workers. I only wish that the penalties were harsh enough to be a more effective deterrent.”

I agree. It’s been 25 years since Congress updated OSHA’s penalty amounts. It’s to be a LOT more expensive for companies that violate worker safety laws, including giving senior officials jail time.

And what about the Evanston/Skokie School District that hired these firms? What steps had the school district’s leadership taken to ensure they were contracting with responsible firms—not those that don’t understand or comply with OSHA regulations. I hope the school district is getting some bad publicity, and that all the firms involved are now on some sort of “no bid allowed” list.

Courtney Davis, Stephanie Harper and Paul Zygielbaum are three of the millions across the globe touched by asbestos-related disease. Without a global ban on asbestos use and strong regulations to prevent exposure, sadly, they’ll continue to have company.


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