Monday, March 15, 2004

Asbestos in Sarnia: A Slow-Motion Bhopal

One thing that amazes me when I read and write about stories like the popcorn lung tragedy is how little we learned from the decades of coverup -- and the continuing devastation -- wrought by asbestos. This article in the Toronto Globe and Mail is one of the most devastating I've ever read about the man-made plague of asbestos.
Blayne Kinart is a man who used to take pride in the look of his body. When he was 50, he says, there wasn't an ounce of fat on it. He was all muscle, a tribute to the physical rigours of being a millwright in Canada's chemical valley, the maze of petrochemical plants located on the southern outskirts of this Ontario city.

His wife Sandy likes to joke that her husband, a childhood sweetheart who caught her eye in grade school, had always been as "healthy as a horse. If you got a cold in 300 years, it was something."

But today, at 57, Mr. Kinart looks like he wandered into Sarnia directly from a Nazi death camp. Eighteen months ago, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the chest wall. It's an exceedingly rare cancer -- but one that is exceedingly common around Sarnia.

If you are unfortunate enough to get mesothelioma, it basically means only two things. The most immediate is that you've just been handed a death sentence, and an excruciatingly painful one. The other is that at some point in your life, you've breathed asbestos fibres.

There is an epidemic of mesothelioma in Sarnia, the epicentre of what, by some assessments, is the worst outbreak of industrial disease in recent Canadian history.
Jim Brophy, who runs a clinic for Sarnia workers, points out another aspect of the tragedy.
Among the patterns are women who have had their lung cavities scarred because they've done something married women did without thinking in the 1960s and 1970s -- they washed their husband's work clothes. This isn't normally life-threatening, but it is if your husband's coveralls are dusted with asbestos. In other cases, industrial cancers are family affairs, afflicting multiple generations.